Let’s Talk About Sex & Cancer Program Summary

~Liz Hiles

On May 12, 2022, Dana Kirkpatrick joined us for the even to talk about sex and cancer and described some of the most common issues many cancer patients and survivors experience and openly answered questions. Dana Kirkpatrick, MS, LPC, NCC, CST, CSTS, is the Owner and Director of  Calm Pittsburgh and a licensed professional counselor, a nationally certified sex therapist and sex therapist, and supervisor. Dana is also a breast cancer survivor and was diagnosed when she was 31. As she says, she’s “just living it like all the rest of us.”  Dana shared that she is really transparent about her survivorship status with her patients to build a bridge with them and so that it doesn’t distract why they’re there to see her. 

Before Dana was introduced, Chris Chamars, Gryt Health’s Program & Partnership Specialist and the evening’s host, played a short clip from the movie Pitch Perfect (approximately the 2 minute and 40 second mark) where they were singing a remake of Salt ‘N’ Pepa’s 1990 hit, Let’s Talk About Sex to loosen up the move and present a comfortable space to talk about an uncomfortable topic that should be discussed a lot more.  

Dana explained exactly what a sex therapist does and does not do. Sex therapy is about working with patients with higher vulnerabilities and utilizing evidence-based training techniques like cognitive-behavioral, narrative, and humanistic therapies. Sex therapists do not have sex with clients, nor do they show people how to have sex. Sex therapists meet people where they are, see their needs and desires, and then work with them to get there without embarrassment or shame. She incorporates religious, gender, cultural, and sexual minority competencies in her approaches to ensure that her patients are comfortable and that the suggested techniques are appropriate to their lives. Dana says that everyone in her practice is trauma-focused and person-centered. 

Unfortunately, cancer affects your sexuality and all the other areas of your life that it invades. It will take exploration and work. Everyone hates the phrase “the new normal,” but it’s also accurate in this case. You may experience pleasure differently and in different parts of your body.

For example, if you have breast cancer and previously had really sensitive nipples, that may not work for your post-surgical-radiation-chemo body. You may need to find other places and touch pressures that work for you, especially if you no longer have nipples. For those with a penis experiencing erectile dysfunction, typical direct stimulation of the shaft may no longer work. You and your partner may want to experience light caressing massage over other body areas and engage in more extended periods of foreplay before an erection is achieved.

All of the direct effects of cancer impact our physical responses immediately, but some of them last for a while, and others are permanent. Menopause, urinary tract infections, insomnia, hot flashes, vaginal dryness, and erectile dysfunction all affect how your body processes pleasure. Nerve damage and anatomy changes can drastically affect how we feel about our bodies and how our bodies react to various things. Your hormones can be affected, which can eradicate your desire as well. So can changes in your mental health and medical PTSD from everything that you are or have been going through. 

Sometimes the experiences we have also produce medically-induced sexual trauma. This is where simple things that we had no problem doing before cancer, like a pelvic exam, can be incredibly triggering after cancer. Yet, they are still vital to physical well-being and, sometimes, to cancer follow-up care. So it’s equally important to address these issues and work with your care team and, sometimes, a therapist to get beyond the trauma. 

Dana shared that her entire practice is sex-positive. She “doesn’t care if someone is non-binary, queer, trans, intersex, or whatever. I don’t care if they’re a non-binary person who’s adopting a baby or if they want to talk about their ADHD. Our job is really to talk about why you are there, what your desire to change is, and having or being LGBTQIA+ is not something that, as a sex therapist, we inherently believe needs to be changed, whereas other people may. A sex therapist is a safe place for any of those minority populations, including kink and poly. There are overlaps of all of these within the cancer community.” 

Dana feels that the key really is all about communication and consent. If you are clearly able to communicate your desires and needs and that you and your partner(s) consent to what you want, then there is no shame in pursuing them to see if those things will help you get to where you want. 

Also, every cancer survivor who has experienced a “below the belt” cancer (cancers of the digestive, urinary or reproductive systems), can benefit from a certified pelvic floor physical therapist! Your PCP can refer you, or you can speak with the physician who treated you for your cancer. Pelvic floor physical therapists receive specialized training and can help with issues of pelvic floor dysfunctions and weaknesses that often are caused by below-the-belt cancers and/or the treatments those patients receive. 

There are exercises (other than just Kegel’s) and therapy techniques that can be utilized to help strengthen and heal various issues caused during your cancer journey. These things can sometimes help reawaken the nerves causing sexual dysfunction and pelvic pain. See the links below to aid in your search for a qualified professional. Again, EVERYONE can benefit from this! Men AND women experience pelvic pain and dysfunction!

 It all takes some outside-of-the-box thinking to move from how things were done pre-cancer to how items might need to be done. Seeking a sex therapist is a way to gain some guidance on how to get beyond those challenges. Sex therapists can help you address physical and mental issues that you are experiencing, such as shame or embarrassment around the physical problems. Many people also experience generational trauma associated with sex and body positivity. Working through these things can be especially helpful when working through cancer traumas as well. 

Sometimes out-of-the-box thinking may require the use of sexual aids (also known as sex toys) or other resources to help you figure out what now makes you tick, so to speak. Overcoming the hetero-cisgender norms can be a barrier in working through these issues. It is often normalized for cis-women to use vibrators, while many cis-men have a tremendous amount of shame about utilizing sex toys. Many cancer patients must work through societal stereotypes, gender, and cultural norms to get through the suggested steps in regaining their mojo.

As Dana says, “Don’t yuck someone else’s yum.” If it’s not your jam, don’t put it on your toast, but just because it isn’t your jam, that doesn’t mean it can’t be someone else’s!

Dana shared two resources: a lube guideline and information about Sensate Focus.  

If you’d like to view the presentation in its entirety, you can view it below:

We thanked Dana after an hour and concluded the evening with another 30 minutes of sharing and conversation about the evening’s topic. This part was not recorded for the comfort and privacy of those in attendance. 

Don’t forget; there are still 2 parts left in our 4-part Mental Health Series this month! You can learn more about the remaining 2 sessions here. As always, all Gryt Health programs are free, but registration is required. 

You can find other future Gryt Health events on our official Calendar of Events.

If you haven’t already, save the dates: November 2022 for GVCC22! Our 4th annual Global Virtual Cancer Conference! You can pre-register here, and all information for our call out for speakers is found here.  

Resources

You can find Dana’s organization, Calm Pittsburgh, on the web and on Facebook.

To reach out to her personally, you can email her directly at dana@calmpittsburgh.com, and you can connect with her on her social media on Facebook and Instagram

The paper on sex positivity that Dana referred to during her presentation can be found here

To find a qualified sex therapist, here are some resources. 

AASECT

Specifically, the Referral Directory

Psychology Today

International Society for the Study of Women’s Sexual Health (ISSWSH)

To find a pelvic floor therapist: 

APTA Pelvic Health

The Canadian Continence Foundation

Here are some additional resources for sexual aids:

Überlube

Adam & Eve

Dame

Middlesex

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