Emotions, sexuality and cancer treatment

It is normal to feel a range of emotions when dealing with cancer and its treatment. Some of the emotions you may feel include:

Anger – You may feel angry about having cancer and about the ways it has affected your life, including your sexuality or your ability to have children (fertility).

Anxiety – The thought of having sex again after treatment can cause anxiety. You may be unsure how you’ll perform, dread being touched, or feel self-conscious about being seen naked. If you’re single, you may feel anxious about getting involved in a new relationship. Worrying that you’re not satisfying your partner sexually can also cause distress.

Fear – You may worry that others will avoid or reject you when they see how your body has changed. You may not be able to imagine yourself in a sexual situation again.

Guilt – Many people think they should just be grateful to have the cancer treated and feel guilty for thinking about sex or their sexual needs. Some people wonder if past sexual activity has contributed to their cancer. Cancer is not sexually transmitted, but some cancers may be linked to a sexually transmitted infection.

Self-consciousness – If your body has changed physically after treatment, you may feel self-conscious. Often people discover that their partner isn’t as concerned about these changes as they are.

Shame – You may feel ashamed by changes that affect your sexuality, your appearance or the way your body functions.

Depression – Symptoms of depression can include feeling sad, irritable or anxious, having trouble sleeping, losing interest in activities you previously enjoyed, poor appetite and a decreased interest in sex (low libido).

Grief – You may grieve for your former body and sex life if things have changed significantly. These feelings can affect your self-esteem, sexuality and attitude towards intimacy. It can help to talk about how you’re feeling with someone you trust and feel comfortable with, such as your partner, another person who has had cancer, or your doctor, cancer nurse coordinator or counsellor. Call 13 11 20 for a free copy of the Emotions and Cancer booklet.

Common sexual problems associated with cancer treatment

General

  • losing interest in sex
  • tiredness and lethargy (fatigue)
  • losing a body part, such as a reproductive organ or breast
  • changed body image, e.g. due to scarring, loss of a body part or changes in weight
  • fertility problems (temporary or permanent)
  • painful intercourse
  • depression and anxiety
  • strain on, or changes to, your relationship(s).

Male

Specific problems for men may include:

  • erectile dysfunction
  • ejaculation difficulties.

Female

Specific problems for women may include:

  • trouble reaching an orgasm
  • vaginal dryness
  • reduced vaginal size
  • loss of sensation
  • pelvic pain
  • menopausal symptoms
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.

View our editoral policy