Sexual problems are common among cancer patients, but discussing them openly is not.

But Louise Suggs, a licensed professional counselor who is certified by the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists, understands all too well that talking about sex often makes people nervous.

“Intimacy can be an uncomfortable or even awkward topic for couples, but we all want more of it in our relationships,” Suggs said. “The first step to working on improving intimacy is to be able to talk about it more openly.”

That’s exactly what’s in store for a workshop for couples dealing with cancer in a session called “Cancer and Intimacy,” to be held Feb. 5 at 6 p.m. at Novant Health Buddy Kemp Cancer Support Center, 242 S. Colonial Ave., in Charlotte. The free event is designed for couples, who are encouraged to attend together. (See details below.)

Louise Suggs

“Making people feel comfortable and safe is key to these discussions,” said Suggs, a therapist at Bright Cares counseling services in Charlotte.

Getting closer with cancer

There are physical and emotional changes that occur during and after treatment, which sometimes leads to a change in your ability and desire to have sex or even maintain closeness and intimacy.

Suggs knows this firsthand. Growing up, both of Suggs’ parents had cancer, and saw how deeply it affected them.

She tells clients who receive a cancer diagnosis not to treat it like a death sentence. Those with cancer are living longer than ever — the death rate from cancer has fallen 26 percent from its peak in 1991.

“Cancer doesn’t have to be the end to intimacy,” Suggs said. “When you accept the changes in your life, you can still find fulfilling ways to feel closer.”

For some patients, both symptoms and treatment side effects can get in the way of enjoying sex, which is why Suggs said she helps couples reach a state of acceptance of their changes before working on ways to be closer.

“The first step is acceptance of how you’ve changed and grieving that loss of who you used to be,” Suggs said. “My group meetings are always a zero-pressure environment.”

But redefining intimacy can be fun, she said, especially when it’s approached by both partners with curiosity and openness.

How to have the talk

Suggs said couples can overcome their anxieties by remembering that open and honest conversations are key to a healthy relationship.

Avoidance of the subject can make matters worse, so it’s better to be upfront with tact, she said. When you bring up your hope for more intimacy, discuss your concerns in a way that your partner feels like you’re part of a team, rather than fighting for your own.

Sometimes having a neutral, certified professional act as a facilitator for discussions like this can be a huge help.

“One couple I worked with struggled with dealing with the pain and fear of having intercourse, but they’ve had many breakthroughs by talking and working with each other,” Suggs said. “Now she has three kids with her partner.”

Events designed for couples that are led by professionals can be a great way for couples to get inspiration and ideas.

Tips for inviting your partner

If you’re not sure how to have the talk with your partner about attending an event like the upcoming one at Buddy Kemp, here are some tips from Suggs.

  • Start by explaining to your partner how you’re feeling in the moment.
  • Bring up the positives about your partner or your relationship and how you’d like to get even closer.
  • State your reasons for wanting to go as well as your goals for therapy.

And don’t forget to be assertive about your request. Instead of saying, “it would be nice if you came, but you don’t have to,” it’s better to ask in a way that can only be responded to with a yes or no. You're certainly not alone on your own when it comes to having these discussions. Suggs' talk will help couples ask questions and learn more from other couples on how they are tackling some of these common concerns. 

“I’ve seen so many couples overcome trauma and other issues that get in the way of them growing closer,” Suggs said. “I just love being able to give people hope — because it’s often there, it just takes a while for us to realize it.”

Sign up for the event online or by calling 704-384-5223. Registration is required to attend. Light dinner will be served. The event is free.