How to Bring Intimacy Back into Your Relationship

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If you think talking about sexual health and colorectal cancer is uncomfortable, then keep reading. This blog is for you. Paula Chambers Raney, a stage I colorectal cancer survivor, Fight CRC Ambassador, and fierce advocate, shares her personal story about sexual health and colorectal cancer. She has tips to bring intimacy back into your relationship, advice on how to turn your libido around, and suggestions for how to make sexual health and intimacy a priority in your life.

Paula unquestionably believes that talking about sexual health and intimacy when dealing with colorectal cancer surgery and treatment takes the taboo out of these topics. She also believes people need to become comfortable talking about these topics because they are an important component of quality of life in survivorship.

Paula Chambers photo

Prioritizing Sexual Health and Intimacy

“Sexual joy after colorectal cancer has been a real journey of discovery for me,” said Chambers Raney, who experienced symptoms of body dysmorphia after her surgery. 

She received her colorectal diagnosis in the emergency room, and her immediate main concern was survival. She remembered thinking about having an ostomy and wondering about foods she might never be able to eat again. But at no point did "Will I still be able to express myself sexually?” appear on Paula's radar of questions to ask her medical team.

She realizes now that sexual health and intimacy are as critical as the other thoughts that went through her mind that day. “Today, I know it should have been a question at the top of the list.  My body was about to change forever.” Paula wishes she had more information and knowledge about how her sexual health would be affected after her surgery. “I am a sexual being in a loving relationship. It's part of the way I communicate love, and it’s one of life's true pleasures,” says Paula.

Sexual Health and Intimacy Are Essential to Quality of Life

Grateful to be alive after her resection, Paula also realized that sexual health and intimacy was crucial to her quality of life and overall well-being. However, she wasn’t quite ready to bring sexual health and intimacy back into her relationship. As Paula healed from surgery, she felt that sex was awkward and uncomfortable.

“I was constantly in my head, making false judgments about how I thought I looked; what my partner saw: My body was so thin. I had staples, bruising from IV sticks and blown-out veins, and that darn port still bulging in my chest. I had chapped lips and dry hair. I didn't feel good about my new body, and I didn't know what to do about it.”

Paula Chambers Raney

“Of course, I was telling myself cruel untruths,” Paula said. Fortunately, she realized that she was still reeling from the shock from her diagnosis and surgery, and she needed help.  

Taking Steps to Improve Sexual Health and Intimacy

“I knew the first thing I had to do was talk to someone I trusted, so I made two appointments: one with my OB/GYN and one with my behavioral therapist.”

Paula Chambers Raney

Paula felt fortunate to have a healthcare team that was able to help with pelvic floor therapy, creams for sensitivity, and a prescription for antidepressants to help with hot flashes and mood. “These things took time and patience to get right,” she said.

An important step forward in Paula’s healing came from a conversation with her wife. They were both vulnerable, yet they could talk about what they each wanted out of a sexual relationship after all they had been through together. Paula stresses there are many ways to express physical intimacy.

“When you have honest conversations about comfort levels, pain, fear, and body anxiety, it helps break down walls of embarrassment. It took away that awkward ‘taboo subject’ feeling.”

Paula affirms the importance of re-establishing relationship roles. “We were able to start the transition from caregiver and cancer patient to spouse and partner,” she said.

Finding Your Way Back to Pleasure

Counseling was essential in helping Paula get through this difficult period. She and her wife worked together, attending couples therapy and intimacy coaching. 

“It was suggested that we look into ways to stimulate each other and bring back arousal to areas of the body that had become painful or affected by cancer treatment.”

Paula Chambers Raney

She had no idea of the extent and variety of devices available to help her on her journey back to intimacy.

“Finding your way back to pleasure is a discovery process. Ways you may have found pleasure in the past may not bring you the sexual joy you once had,” Paula said. She took time to find out more about her own needs, and considered how she could be more proactive in discovering new, more enjoyable ways to explore sex and intimacy. 

Paula also practiced ways to raise her self-esteem, such as exercise, drinking lots of water, affirmation, medication, and breathing exercises, which helped her feel comfortable in her own new body. “I am less stressed, which in turn, makes intimacy more pleasurable. I truly believe that my body is a precious gift. My sexual energy is natural resource of joy and pleasure,” said Paula. She is grateful for her “perfectly imperfect body.” She has decided to accept herself as she is, which in turn has given her the ability to allow and welcome sexual pleasure back into her life. 

Sexual health and intimacy after colorectal cancer may feel like it’s not an important topic as you are working toward survival, but Paula advised that it is an integral part of love and relationship as you heal mentally, physically, and emotionally from the effects of colorectal cancer.

Additional Resources on Sexual Health and Intimacy For CRC Patients

For additional Fight CRC resources on sexual health and intimacy after colorectal cancer, please be sure to check out our blog posts Sex as a Colorectal Cancer Survivor, Colorectal Cancer and Sex, Sexual Health and Clinical Trials, and Let’s Talk about Sex – and Colorecal Cancer, as well as the podcast Sexual Health during Treatment with Spencer Dayton, and and IG Live Sexual Health with Theresa.

Top 7 Podcasts and Media Recommendations on Sexual Health and Intimacy for Colorectal Cancer Patients

Paula recommends these podcasts, which were exceptionally helpful and educational:

  1. We Can Do Hard Things with Glennon Doyle: Orgasm: Pleasure is the Final Frontier with Dr. Lori Brotto
  2. Sensual Self with Ev’Yan Whitney: Episode 67: Sensual Sex Ed (with Goody Howard)
  3. The Dildorks: Sex Drive Nose Dive 
  4. Speaking of Sex: Finding New Pleasure Pathways
  5. Ten Percent Happier with Dan Harris: #435. Mind-Blowing Sex | Dr. Lori Brotto

Did you know that Netflix – Yes, Netflix! – has so great programs on sexuality and reclaiming your sex life? Check out these specials suggested by Paula Chambers Raney, stage III colorectal cancer survivor and advocate:

  1. Netflix: The Principles of Pleasure
  2. The Netflix Series: Sex Explained

Top 7 Sexual Health and Intimacy Product Recommendations

Paula shared a few of her favorite sexual health and intimacy items. She hopes to provide assistance, education, and inspiration to survivors grappling with sexual health and intimacy issues after colorectal cancer. She even provided suggestions that she hopes spark curiosity and helps people reclaim their sexual joy!

Paula highly recommends purchasing products at local shops, such as Adam & Eve®, where the people who work there understand the products and are happy to help you find what you want and are looking for. While not all products are available on the Adam & Eve site, all products are available online, and we’ve included links to help you find them!

In no particular order, here are Chambers Raney’s top 7 favorite sexual health and intimacy items:

  1. Pjur med: Natural Glide is recommended for people with dry and sensitive skin. It protects and soothes dry skin. It’s also gentle on sensitive areas, so it’s ideal to use with toys. You can find it online, and at some Walmart stores as well as Adam & Eve
  2. Butterfly Remote Venus G was recommended after pelvic floor therapy as a way to explore my own personal sensitivities and to gauge what my body finds pleasurable now as opposed to trying to get back to something I thought I had lost. Also available through Adam & Eve, the butterfly can be used with or without a remote, and it comes with many settings. 
  3. Eve's Bliss Vibrator was a popular item recommended by the friendly staff at Adam & Eve in Houston. All agreed this one is a shop favorite. The design is made to stimulate two zones at once with its dual motor.
  4. The Lay-on Rabbit is another very popular recommendation, and it can be used alone or with a bullet vibrator like our No. 5 pick.
  5. The We-Vibe Tango X is another great choice, which has eight types of vibrations and is also waterproof. The We-Vibe Tango X is also through Adam & Eve.
  6. Wicked Toy Fever, Toy Breeze, and Toy Love are all natural and widely available. They provide long-lasting play with safe formulas.
  7. Destiny Maia Novelties is another fantastic product that everyone can use. It provides a powerful suction and both vibration functions are controlled separately on a simple interface with dedicated buttons, so it is easy to customize for personal preference.

*Chambers Raney highly advises that you speak to your doctor about medications you are using and any pain or discomfort you might experience. Remember to always use the recommended hygienic care steps for each product.

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