Resuming sexual activity after treatment

While some people find sexual intimacy is the last thing on their mind after treatment, others experience an increased need for closeness. An intimate connection with a partner can make you feel loved and supported as you come to terms with the impact of cancer. However, cancer can strain a relationship, particularly if you had relationship or intimacy problems before the diagnosis.

Cancer need not mean the end of your sexual life. But you may need to develop more openness and confidence, in and out of the bedroom. Your favourite love-making positions may become less comfortable temporarily or change over time. Try to keep an open mind about ways to feel sexual pleasure.

Adapting to changes

There are many ways to prepare for sex during or after treatment:

  • Talk openly with your partner – about any fears you have about resuming sexual activity.
  • Let your partner know how you feel – when you’re ready to have sex, what level of intensity you prefer, if they should do anything differently and how they can help you to feel pleasure.
  • Ask your partner how they are feeling – they may be worried about hurting you or appearing too eager.
  • Take it slowly – It may be easier to start with cuddles or a sensual massage the first few times rather than penetrative sex.
  • Plan ahead – sex may need to be less spontaneous after treatment. Choosing the time can help deal with pain and fatigue, and help build arousal.
  • Focus on other aspects of your relationship – many relationships are not dependent on sex. But be mindful if this is a problem for your partner.
  • Try exploring your sexuality on your own – to develop an understanding of what’s changed and what feels good, then talk about this with your partner.
  • Be patient – Things often improve with time and practice.

Staying sexually confident

If you feel unsure about yourself as a result of the cancer, you may also lack confidence sexually. It can be especially difficult to maintain sexual self-esteem if you are feeling unwell and still working, all while coming to terms with having cancer. Things that make you feel good and lift your general sense of wellbeing will help to improve your sexual confidence.

Sexual attractiveness is sometimes judged by physical characteristics, but sex appeal is a combination of looks and other personal attributes such as personality and sense of humour. It may help to express how you feel with your partner, a friend or family member you can trust, or a doctor or counsellor.

Masturbation

Self-pleasuring (masturbation) can be a positive and satisfying way to enjoy sexual activity when you don’t have a partner or if you’re not ready for intimacy with a partner. It can help you find out what your body is capable of sexually. Many couples enjoy mutual masturbation as an alternative to penetrative sex.

If you have had treatment in your breast or genital region, it may help to spend time alone touching these areas to find out if there is soreness or numbness, what feels different and what feels good. This preparation may help to let your partner know what feels good and what doesn’t when you are ready to be intimate.

This information was last reviewed in May 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Dr Lesley Yee, Sexual Health Physician and Psychotherapist, Australian Centre for Sexual Health, NSW; Sandy Hutchison, Executive Manager, Cancer Counselling, Cancer Council Queensland; Helena Green, Clinical Nurse Specialist and Breast Nurse, Sexologist, RELATE Sexuality, WA; Sam Gibson, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Carole Arbuckle, Cancer Support Nurse, Cancer Council Victoria; Deb Roffe, Gynaecological Research Nurse, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, QLD; and Garth Wootton, Consumer.

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