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Olivia Kiely has a zoom chat with Brian Lobel about Sex with Cancer, an event that aims to remove the stigma surrounding this subject in a serious, yet joyous and positive way.

Sex and cancer – two subject matters that carry their own set of historical taboos. When put together, the result is often equal parts awkwardness and avoidance. Unfortunately, this stigma doesn’t just exclude these subjects from polite dinnertime conversations, it has caused a lack of conversations in the rooms where they are most needed. For those receiving treatment for cancer – both presently and historically – questions about sex with cancer often go unanswered. Whether embarrassment or lack of understanding, there is a shortage of resources offering advice on a spectrum of sexual queries, particularly resources without a purely medical origin. This is where Sex with Cancer comes in.

Founded by Brian Lobel and Joon Lynn Goh, Sex with Cancer combines art, research and social enterprise, with the aim of creating a resource for people with questions surrounding this topic. Lobel is a performer, often creating work centring on the topic of cancer and Goh is a cultural organiser and producer, with social change and activism the focus of her work. Both have also been treated for cancer. Drawing from their personal experiences and their dissatisfaction with the help and support on offer, they decided to create a resource that shifted the conversation, refocusing on the real needs, wants and desires of those with cancer and their sexual partners.

Sex with Cancer is still developing, running online events to both educate people on their mission and gather anonymous information from audiences, to develop a resource that truly serves those who need it most. As someone who has no real experience living with cancer, that 90-minute event taught me a lot I didn’t know; in fact, it taught me a lot of things I didn’t know I needed to know. Through fun and interactive tasks, we worked to gain our ‘Certificate in Sex and Cancer Conversation Competency’. Although the evening’s conversations touched on some very serious, very real topics, having these joyous moments and with positivity ever present, was key.

After the event, I sat down with co-founder Lobel. “One of the biggest problems that we have with people who are ill is that we relegate them to just being silent – now you just become passive, you become a patient.” Lobel explains that Sex with Cancer is about breaking that silence and giving people the space to ask questions and speak about their experiences confidently. “I don’t care how many dildos we sell, I care how many people hear the words sex with cancer, so that then they can ask their doctor [about it].”

Lobel acknowledges that to help solve the current issues facing cancer patients, there needs to be changes made from within the medical profession. “We want to give the tools to healthcare professionals to speak about this better.” Events, such as the one I attended, included the input of medical professionals. On my night, we were joined by Dr Louise Soanes, the chief nurse at the Teenage Cancer Trust and Kate Fulton, a clinical psychologist working at the Royal Marsden. “There are great people who are doing this work,” Lobel tells me in reference to both Soanes and Fulton, but “there are a lot of people who are doing badly. A doctor’s not a bad person for not having confidence around talking about sex. They wouldn’t have professionally talked about it and if it’s half a day, talking about sex and sexuality in their medical school training, why would we expect them to know… but we can’t except that, we have to do something about it.”

I ask Lobel about how theatre specifically can help progress these types of conversations. “Everyone thinks that cancer stories are common. They’re very, very rare in theatre.” Sitting there, I fail to recall any plays I have seen focused on cancer and the reality of Lobel’s appraisal is clear. When you consider that cancer is a topic that almost universally affects us all in some way or another, the lack of stories being told onstage is baffling. “I want there to be ten times as many cancer stories as there currently are because the only way that the genre moves along is if more people tell their stories.”

Lobel has already penned a book: Theatre & Cancer, examining the genre as it stands and challenging the niche narratives that these stories often fall in to. Discussing the need for a larger volume of shows about this, Lobel talks about the lack of a traceable history of cancer in theatre. “We need more because the genre has still not quite got a legacy. People should not be afraid to tell those stories as they do teach us a lot about the world. They hopefully can help to build a heritage, which I do not believe exists as strongly as it really needs to.”

Towards the end of our zoom call, Lobel talks also about the realities of working on a project such as this. “The terrifying thing is that if you dedicate yourself to a life that works with people and is interested in people that are ill – seriously ill – then you have to prepare yourself for a life where you lose people.” It’s a sobering truth that exists as a constant undercurrent in the work of Sex with Cancer. “I don’t trust any organisations that just promote positivity because you have to acknowledge grief. It’s a hard topic. You should be sad about something that’s sad.” Although Lobel addresses these serious realities candidly, he is still clear that Sex with Cancer should be “all inclusive, and fun, and doesn’t take itself too seriously”.

Having sex with cancer is of course going to pose a different set of challenges related to the realities of being ill.  Sex with Cancer’s aim is to acknowledge this, whilst still promoting the idea that sex should always be fun, enjoyable, adventurous and centred around pleasure. So, if you are facing doubts or worries, this will help you find some answers and perhaps help you find something else too…

For more information, visit the Sex with Cancer website.