Help for cancer survivors dealing with sexual pain

Posted by Sheryl M Ness, MA, RN @smness, Nov 26, 2014

A few weeks back, I introduced the new Mayo Clinic Women’s Health Clinic model here on the blog. I’d like to continue the conversation on the topic of sexual health for women who have undergone cancer treatment.

There are times when cancer treatment (for example, patients who have had vulvar cancer, vaginal, cervical or uterine cancer) may cause painful sex for a woman. Pain during sexual intercourse may cause additional stress to the intimate and emotional relationship with her partner.

Changes in the emotional dynamics between the partners commonly occur when one partner experiences sexual pain. Researchers have studied this situation with results showing three common responses that may take place between the couple. Emotional reaction may include the following behaviors:

  • Hostile dynamic (angry, approaches the problem in a defensive or even aggressive manner)
  • Solicitous dynamic (anxious to please, but often avoids the problem to avoid conflict)
  • Facilitative dynamic (willing to adapt or change in response to the problem)

A solicitous or avoidant behavior comes from a loving place, where neither partner wants to hurt the other, but they don’t know what else to do, so they do nothing. This causes a ripple effect where one or both partners begin to avoid both sexual and non-sexual physical intimacy, and then over time they become more distant emotionally.

One might think that hostile is the most damaging dynamic, but actually hostile and solicitous are equally damaging in the long term. Both cause a major rift in the relationship.

A facilitative dynamic has been shown to be the healthiest of the three. It’s difficult to develop a facilitative dynamic (to adapt and change) when you’re not quite sure how to adapt or what alternatives are available.

For women and their partners, understanding these dynamics and recognizing when they may need treatment is crucial. Medical treatment involves determining the source of the sexual pain and working on goals to treat the pain. Psychological treatment involves working with the couple to:

  • Break the hostile or solicitous (avoidant) dynamic with behavioral exercises
  • Redefine what intimacy is for you and your partner
  • Increase overall and sexual communication

If this is something that you’re dealing with, it’s important to communicate with each other and seek out resources to keep your relationship healthy.

The Women’s Health Clinic at Mayo Clinic can provide medical and psychological assessment and treatment of sexual pain related to cancer. To schedule an appointment, you may contact staff in Minnesota at 507-266-9234 or Arizona at 480-614-6001.

I also invite you to share your thoughts on this topic with each other on the blog.

For more information on the Women’s Health Clinic at Mayo Clinic and sexual pain, see also this YouTube video

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