Nausea. Extreme fatigue. Hair loss. Lost mobility.
Pain during intercourse. Erectile disfunction. Reduction of sexual drive. Plummeting self-image.
After a cancer diagnosis, the first half of the list is frequently discussed – supportive services provide classes on nutrition, friends give gifts of hats or offer rides to treatment.
But, for patients and loved ones facing cancer-caused problems with sexuality and intimacy, the second half of the list is critical in maintaining quality of life. Breast cancer patients suddenly undergoing menopause may find themselves with decreased desire and increased discomfort. (1) Men dealing with erectile disfunction face “an increase in depressive symptoms, frustration, shame, disappointment, and lower general life happiness.” Others face “3am” fears that keep them up – worrying if surgery scars will make them unattractive to their partners (2) or agonizing that disclosing their survivor status will send prospective partners running.
Unfortunately, sexual side effects are frequently omitted from the topics discussed during oncology appointments. (3)
That’s where Indiana-based Reclaiming Intimacy comes in, with a mission to provide “resources, educational services, and therapeutic products to help overcome illnesses and issues that create sexual dysfunction and loss of intimacy.”
More than a decade ago, Jen Fecher, now RI’s Director of Educational Services, was facing her own chronic health issues and began a course of treatment often reserved for cancer patients. Battling side effects faced by many cancer patients, she connected with resources from Cancer Services of Northeast Indiana. A teacher by trade, Jen soon found her passion helping others who needed help. “A struggle with intimacy causes so much stress and many find it is slowing their healing.” Her recovery was an opportunity to team us with Cancer Services to create “The Big C and The Big O,” a class for patients and caregivers still available today.
Reclaiming Intimacy offers a variety of support services, with a holistic view of sexuality and intimacy. Classes are offered online and in person, for individuals or partners. There are paid and free options– with scholarships available for patients facing financial toxicity. A customized wellness guide that includes tips, tricks and suggested aids is available for free through signup on the organization’s website.
Gone is the awkwardness of fruit-shaped vibrators and furry handcuffs – fun in their appropriate framework and sometimes shared in an attempt to bring levity to this serious issue, but off-putting to patients facing life-threatening illnesses. The group offers medical-grade sexual wellness aids that are frequently covered by insurance. (RI staff will help clients file for reimbursement through their health insurance.) “At some classes, we’ll have a table set up with a variety of sexual aids,” Jen said. “Participants are able to look silently and write their questions, which we will discuss as a group.” RI also provides one-on-one consultations for clients looking for a bit more privacy.
Cancer doesn’t happen in a vacuum, so Reclaiming Intimacy is working with organizations across the nation to provide up to date resources. They’ve partnered with the National LGBT Cancer Network to ensure the information they share is inclusive to all patients.
Jen and her colleagues are committed to providing judgement-free, fact-based resources and action plans, recognizing the challenges that come with talking about an often-taboo topic. “We started in a conservative state. For many of our friends and neighbors, talking about sex is out of the norm, except for pregnancy. We’re working to make these crucial conversations more accessible for everyone involved. Our medically-versed staff works with insurance companies and doctors, our educators are empowering patients and caregivers with information.”
To connect with a volunteer who has also suffered through intimacy or sexuality challenges, request a match by calling 877-HOPENET (877.467.3638) or click HERE.
(1) Changes in Your Sex Life. Breastcancer.org. (2021, February 3). https://www.breastcancer.org/tips/intimacy/changes.
(2) Nelson, C. J., & Kenowitz, J. (2013, February). Communication and intimacy-enhancing interventions for men diagnosed with prostate cancer and their partners. The journal of sexual medicine. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4324570/#R7.
(3) How Cancer and Cancer Treatment Can Affect Sexuality. American Cancer Society. (n.d.). https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fertility-and-sexual-side-effects/how-cancer-affects-sexuality.html.