How to Reconnect With Your Partner After Breast Cancer Treatment

After Dee Casapulla’s breast cancer treatment, she and her husband weren’t sure how to rebuild their relationship. But they persevered and came through it stronger than ever before.

Breast cancer treatment can bring about a variety of changes that can take a toll, both physically and emotionally.

Some of them, such as losing your hair or eyelashes, are temporary and can be managed with wigs and makeup, should you so choose. But other changes, such as a mastectomy or reconstruction, leave a permanent mark and require some getting used to. All of this can have an impact on your body image — and your relationship.

For Denise (Dee) Casapulla, 54, redefining intimacy meant learning to accept her “new” self and being open and honest with her partner.

Navigating Intimacy’s Unknowns

Before being diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2023, Dee’s relationship with her husband, Steve, was rock solid. The couple filled their weekends with fun getaways and household projects they’d work on together. “We were a team,” she says.

But Dee’s breast cancer diagnosis affected their relationship. “It took away the intimacy that we shared with each other,” she says.

One issue? When it came to the physical part of their relationship, Dee and Steve weren’t sure what was okay to do. They couldn’t get clear instructions, either, from her doctors or online resources.

They asked whether they could have sex and if they could even kiss after a round of chemo. “It was all very vague,” says Dee, which left them both feeling unsure how to navigate this new reality.

“Being intimate with your partner is so important to your relationship,” she says. “It’s connection. It’s feeling like somebody wants you, like somebody needs you.”

Some people may lose interest in intimacy altogether while going through breast cancer treatment. But even so, you may still crave that physical closeness.

“I’m still a person,’” Dee says. “Yes, I have cancer. But it’s like someone who has heart disease or high blood pressure: It doesn’t change who I am, it doesn’t change my needs, it doesn’t change my wants.”

Finding New Ways to Get Close With Breast Cancer

Despite the lack of guidance, Dee and Steve found different ways to keep up their emotional and physical connection.

“I’ve had to learn to embrace it, be a little more creative, try to do fun little things to keep that closeness,” says Dee. That includes sitting close to one another, holding hands, and engaging in playful conversation. “I would try to be flirty with him. I know, with no hair and no eyebrows, it’s hard to be flirty — but I tried,” she says.

But it was all about balance. On days when she wasn’t up to it, Dee didn’t push herself to be sexual or flirt with her husband. But on better days, she’d try to spice things up by wearing something fun or just exploring together. “You do the best you can,” she says.

Sharing Your New Body With Your Partner

At first, Dee was uncomfortable sharing her postmastectomy body with Steve. “Having a bilateral mastectomy is not sexy,” she says. “I didn’t want him to see the scars.”

But Steve reassured her. He was careful to make her feel comforted and loved without pressuring her to do anything she wasn’t ready for yet. “I’m not going anywhere,” he told her.

“I felt like I couldn’t love him more for saying that,” says Dee.

With time, Dee has found strength from beauty within. “As you get older, you start to realize it’s not so much about what you look like,” says Dee. “It’s about who you are, and who’s going to take care of you, who’s going to sit with you when stuff really goes down.”

And as Dee and Steve have discovered, true intimacy doesn’t get much deeper than that.

How to Rebuild Intimacy With Your Partner

When you’re actively going through breast cancer treatment, you’re likely just taking it day by day, says Mary Dev, a senior social work counselor at The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. “Show up for chemo, deal with the nausea, get through the side effects,” she says.

That’s because breast cancer symptoms, along with treatment-related changes to your body, can become an obstacle, whether you’re dealing with fatigue, loss of libido, pain, or other side effects.

But at some point, you may start to crave intimacy again. “And I’ve talked to many people who just don’t know where to start, because they’ve been in treatment mode for so long,” Dev says.

That’s when body image issues may come into play to complicate your connection with your partner even more.

“It’s important to have these kinds of discussions with the medical team, with social work — even speaking with a sex therapist can be helpful,” adds Carmen Morales, LCSW-R, a social worker at NYU Langone Health’s Perlmutter Cancer Center in New York City.

Ideally, your care team can recommend the right resources to help you bring intimacy back into your relationship. Meanwhile, these tips may help:

  • Keep talking. It’s important to “feel comfortable enough to have a discussion with your partner about how you’re feeling and encourage your partner to also talk about how they’re feeling,” says Morales.
  • Explore your body. Start by looking at yourself in the mirror and touching the scar area, says Morales. “Gently begin exploring, touching.”
  • Include your partner. Once you’re ready, “Allow your partner to briefly feel you,” says Morales. “It’s a step-by-step process, so it might start on top of a T-shirt.”
  • Redefine what lovemaking means. “Explore new ways of being intimate,”? Morales advises. That may mean hugging or just lying down next to each other — whatever it takes to keep moving toward acceptance and feeling closer to one another.
  • Go back to the beginning. “Think about what you did when you were first dating your partner,” says Dev. Treat it like you are getting to know them emotionally and physically for the first time, all over again. “You might have to go all the way back to that and just start slow.”
  • Change your environment. Depending on where you are in your treatment trajectory, plan a weekend getaway, if possible, Dev suggests. A change of scenery may help inspire the two of you to get closer.
  • Be kind to yourself. Intimacy can’t be built or rebuilt overnight. “It takes a lot of patience and a lot of kindness to oneself to accept the changes,” says Morales.
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Resources

  • Uscher J. 7 Tips for Positive Body Image After Breast Cancer. Breastcancer.org. July 18, 2023.
  • Sex & Intimacy. Living Beyond Breast Cancer. August 31, 2015.
  • McCleary-Harris S. Sexual Health During and After Breast Cancer. Breastcancer.org. April 12, 2024.
  • Body Image and Sexuality After Breast Cancer. American Cancer Society. January 5, 2022.
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