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Sexuality and CAM

Sexuality and CAM: Breaking the Taboo of Silence – Taking the Talk on Sexual Intimacy and Cancer out of the Bedroom

August 15, 2013 Toronto, Ontario - Sex - we all think about it, and in most cases have conflicting feelings about how and where it should be talked about. Cancer diagnosis and treatment can create havoc in people’s lives and can often disrupt their sense of themselves – as healthy, sexual beings. In a culture where sex only recently has largely ceased to be a taboo, many people don’t know where to turn when their sexuality becomes one more loss to try to mitigate. As sexual desire and behaviour are so complex and variable under normal circumstances, it is no wonder that distress over sexuality is often sidestepped.

Until recent years, cancer was not considered a chronic illness with residual effects beyond treatment. Sexual side effects related to treatment or the cancer itself are rarely, if ever, discussed in the hospital room. Such issues are regarded with trepidation and shame, leading to silence in the bedroom and in the doctor’s office. It is slowly emerging that medical professionals from physicians to nurses and social workers are lacking in the knowledge, skills and most importantly attitudes that can support cancer patients in their efforts to get back to their “new normal” which includes physical intimacy.

If in the medical context sexuality and intimacy are discussed at all it has become a very clinical talk on the physical impact on intercourse itself – addressing the “coital imperative” and squirm worthy issues such as vaginal dryness and erectile dysfunction. Dr. Don Dizon of the Massachusetts General Hospital Cancer Center in Boston writes “[W]hat do we know about intimacy issues following treatment for cancer? Not as much as we would hope. Much of the literature regarding cancer survivors and sexual health has concentrated on the impacts of cancer diagnosis and treatment on penis-vaginal intercourse…To emphasize the coital imperative in one’s view of sexual health represents an alarmingly limited vantage point that ignores both the complexity of sexual practices and the importance of intimacy…”

So while sex and intimacy shouldn’t be viewed as interchangeable, some of the issues surrounding both are physical, while others are emotional. They include such things as:

  • Overcoming fears and stress related to physical intimacy
  • Low Libido
  • Sensitivity to Touch
  • Fatigue

In each of these cases there are a number of options of psycho-social and complementary therapies that can help cancer patients bridge the gaps on physical and emotional intimacy.

Jennifer Turner, a psychotherapist at the Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre (OICC) offers her insights: “Complementary therapies are uniquely positioned to help address distress around issues of sexuality during the cancer experience. This is largely because complementary approaches such as meditation, counseling, acupuncture, and reiki , address the synergy of mind, body and spirit that essentially intersect in the expression of our sexuality.”

Then where does one start? Communication- with ourselves and with our partners – reducing personal fears and expectations

Cancer patients are often overwhelmed with stress and fears for the future, and approaches which help reduce this distress and provide a portal to presence and mindfulness help the patient feel more grounded physically and emotionally. Bob and Marlene Neufeld, are a therapist couple in the Ottawa area who work as a therapist team helping couples connect. When Bob was diagnosed with prostate cancer they discovered new ways to communicate and connect emotionally and to explore how to connect physically to create intimacy in their relationship. Marlene Neufeld writes “When Bob was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2006 we used all the skills we taught other couples to ensure that our sexual relationship stayed strong throughout the cancer journey.”

Counselling further helps to reframe anxiety and support the patient in creating space for the possibility of intimacy and open communication with their partner. Complementary approaches such as group work help to reduce the sense of alienation that many cancer patients experience and to feel optimistic about being able to make the emotional and physical modifications to allow them to live more fully.

How can one connect the physical and the emotional? Creating the Mind-Body connection through Yoga and Meditation to discover intimacy and sexuality.

In trying to reconnect with the body after cancer diagnosis and treatment, often the first step from a complementary approach is to start with the mind-body connection. Physical therapies such as yoga and meditation help to reduce the acute stress response and return the body and mind to homeostasis. Anne Pitman, Yoga Therapist at the OICC offers these thoughts on yoga, meditation and reconnecting with a partner to discover emotional and physical intimacy:

“The idea that sexual connection will be unchanged after a cancer diagnosis creates unrealistic pressure. A life changing diagnosis of cancer will without a doubt shift the patterns in our relationships. The question might be – can we awaken to this new possibility? Can we take the time to, first, be with ourselves, and do what we can to nourish ourselves in the midst of decisions, uncertainty and fear? And then can we witness each other, and how we move through the cancer experience with compassion? Yoga and meditation can help us learn to be gentle - with ourselves and each other. We can begin to uncover our authentic selves and be open to our partners in a more authentic way. Our sexual connection will change as we change.”

Acknowledging the difficulties of moving through the cancer experience is the beginning of a very different journey. For so many, cancer strips away much of what had become familiar and routine in their lives leaving one exposed and feeling vulnerable. Recognizing that cancer affects the physical and the emotional is the first step in regaining a sense of self and how we can relate to ourselves and our loved ones. By taking the time through CAM therapies such as counselling , yoga and meditation one can get back to being intimate with oneself and with their partners.

For additional information and research please feel free to access the Cancer Knowledge Network library of up to date articles:

The Cancer Knowledge Network is dedicated to giving cancer survivors, their loved ones, and medical professionals access to online knowledge-based resources that fill the gap between scientific text and day-to-day living.
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The Ottawa Integrative Cancer Centre is paving the way for Integrative Oncology care in Central and Eastern Canada. Through clinical practice, research and education, the OICC strives to assess and reduce possible causes of cancer while exploring innovative integrative treatments. The OICC is a regional centre of the Canadian College of Naturopathic Medicine. Find the OICC at
For more information on this subject please contact:

Ya’ara Saks, CKN:
Heidi Vincent, OICC: