Maintaining a sex life while dealing with a serious illness

Having a serious illness can affect everything in your life, from walking up stairs to getting to class. One thing people rarely consider regarding serious illnesses, however, is its impact on a person’s sexual experiences. 

Things like chronic spinal cord injuries and cancer can change everything about a person’s sex life, and—in some cases—even eliminate it. Craig Hospital illustrates many of the issues and solutions faced by people with chronic spinal cord injuries on their Sexual Function page. 

For men, major issues are erection and ejaculation. Getting and maintaining an erection becomes very difficult because many of the neurons involved are found at the base of the spine. 

Using psychological foreplay, however, can help in getting an erection, according to Craig Hospital. They explain that touching parts of the body that still maintain the feeling of pressure can help men to get an erection. It is important for patients to monitor what sensations during the day can give them a reflexive erection as well, as this can be later used in sexual intercourse. 

Women have a different set of concerns when dealing with chronic spinal cord injuries, addressed by the United Spinal Association on their research page. Women can have a difficult time having pleasurable sex after an accident due to the decreased nerve sensation in their genitals. 

With less feeling, it may be difficult to become aroused, so it is vital for sexual partners to build up sex with flirting and foreplay. Using lubricant is a must as well, as women also tend to lose the ability to lubricate their vaginal canal naturally because of the loss of nerve function.  

Cancer also has a severe impact on sexual activity. Treatments for cancer often leave people too tired to engage in intercourse, according to Cancer Research UK. While a person’s sexual appetite may remain unaffected, the treatments can cause pain, exhaustion and depression. 

Cancer Research UK recommends finding intimacy in other ways. There are many creative ways to be close with your partner, writer Samantha Burns explains. She recommends taking a nightly walk with your partner around the block, cooking dinner together, lying in bed and talking or sitting on a blanket together in a park. 

Because of the psychological changes that a chronic or severe illness can bring, sex may be the last thing on the sufferer’s mind—that’s why keeping a close relationship alive in other ways is so critical. While sex itself may be off the table, intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to be. 

 Of course, the added burden of lowered self-esteem likely comes with both conditions. Weight loss and hair loss from cancer can leave a person reeling; additionally, the sudden impact of a chronic spinal injury can potentially lower the sufferer’s self-worth. 

To deal with lowered self-esteem, blogger Stacy Simon suggests having clothes altered to fit, cutting hair short or purchasing a wig and maintaining regular grooming habits, despite the changes. This, she writes, will keep your self-image intact. 

As for those with chronic spinal injuries, similar rules apply. It helps to keep up old routines, to enjoy activities such as sports and hanging out with friends and to keep providing reminders that you are still the same person you were before your injury.

Having a chronic illness can cause self-esteem, physical barriers and medical issues—which consequently create roadblocks to a healthy sex life. With help from your partner, from physical techniques and from positive self-esteem, however, it is still possible to have an intimate, loving relationship.