Cancer is a frightening illness, and the psychological effects of diagnosis and treatment can persist long after treatment has ceased.
Outcomes from cancer treatment have improved enormously in recent years, and more and more people are now not only surviving, but going on to live full lives for decades after experiencing illness. However, the psychological effects of cancer can linger.
One aggravating factor after recovering from illness is often that the patient’s body looks different than before. For example, treatments for breast and testicular cancer can include the removal of the diseased body part. While prosthetics and implants can often largely recreate the appearance of the body before treatment, dealing with this difference can be a constant reminder of the traumatic experience of being ill. Returning to intimacy with a partner, or entering the dating world again after being sick, can feel like a greater challenge when one’s body has been changed in this way.
In recovering from serious illness, it is particularly important not to feel alone. Some will find the support they need in their friendships and relationships in their family, but for many it is also useful to attend a support group composed of people who have had similar experiences, or to talk over what they have gone through with a therapist.
In a world in which people are often praised for being “brave” and “stalwart” and in which being sick with cancer is often discussed in terms of the patient “battling” the disease, it can be difficult to admit to feelings of sorrow, anxiety, and even embarrassment. However, while people can, and do, recover psychologically after serious illness, the first step is to accept these negative emotions, rather than to deny that they are there at all. A lot of power can be gained from accurately naming, and truthfully discussing, the emotions that one is grappling with. Even something as simple as saying, “I am so relieved that my treatment is over, but sometimes I still get upset about all the time that I have lost” is empowering because, by naming the emotion, you gain some control over it, and you reach out to others who can provide support.
When it comes to returning to physical intimacy after cancer treatment, patience is key. You may feel that you should be able to jump right in, but you have been through both physical and emotional trauma, and you deserve to take all the time you need. For many, it is essential to approach intimacy gradually, starting with hugs and caresses, and only engaging in sexual activity when you feel ready. If you have a partner, be open with them and share your fears, your anxieties, and your needs. With time and support, you can feel happy and confident again—including enjoying a rewarding sex or intimate life.
Above all, in terms of recovering from cancer, the most important thing is to take all the time you need. Cancer does not develop overnight, and cancer treatment takes time. You will also need to give yourself time to psychologically process all that you have been through, and to emerge the other end, once more happy and fulfilled in your life.