Emotional and sexuality side effects of vulvar and vaginal treatment

Effect on your emotions

Most women feel shocked and upset about having cancer in one of the most intimate and private areas of their body. It is normal to experience a wide variety of emotions, including anger, fear and resentment. These feelings may become stronger over time as you learn to cope with the physical side effects of radiotherapy, surgery or chemotherapy.

Everyone has their own ways of coping with their emotions. Some people find it helpful to talk to friends or family, while others seek professional help from a specialist nurse or counsellor. Others prefer to keep their feelings to themselves.

There is no right or wrong way to cope. Help is available if you need it. It is important to give yourself, and your partner, family and friends time to deal with the emotions that cancer can cause. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for support.

Sexuality, intimacy and cancer

Treatment for gynaecological cancer can cause physical side effects such as scarring, narrowing of the vagina, swelling and soreness, and tiredness. These side effects can affect your sexual response, and you may have to explore different ways to orgasm or climax.

Cancer may reduce your desire for sex (libido). It may take some months after treatment before you begin to desire and enjoy sexual activity. Don’t be surprised if you feel very unsure about it. However, for most women, sex is more than arousal, intercourse and orgasms. It involves feelings of intimacy and acceptance, as well as being able to give and receive love.

It can be difficult to talk about your sexual needs, fears or worries with your sexual partner, especially if you meet a new partner during or after treatment. Allow yourself to say no to any kind of sexual contact that does not feel right.

You may want to ask your medical team for a referral to a sex counsellor or psychologist who can help you deal with these issues, including talking to a sexual partner. Cancer Council also produces a booklet called Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer – call 13 11 20 for a free copy.

Managing sexual changes

  • Give yourself time to get used to any physical changes.
  • Talk to your doctor about ways to prevent or reduce side effects that affect your sex life.
  • Let your partner know if you don’t feel like having sex, or if you find penetration uncomfortable.
  • Talk to your doctor about using a vaginal moisturiser or hormone creams that can help keep vaginal tissue supple and lubricated. Hormone creams are available on prescription.
  • Use a vaginal dilator and water-based lubricant to keep the vagina open, as instructed by your medical team. This will also help make follow-up examinations easier.
  • Try different sexual positions to see what feels most comfortable.
  • Talk about your feelings with your sexual partner, doctor, sex therapist or counsellor. You can ask your medical team for a referral.
  • Explore different ways to climax. There are many other parts of your body that, when caressed, can increase sexual excitement and lead to orgasm. The breasts, inner thighs, feet and buttocks are all sensitive areas of the body.
This information was last reviewed in October 2014

This information has been reviewed by: Prof Jonathan Carter, Head Gynaecologic Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, Professor of Gynaecological Oncology, University of Sydney, and Head Gynaecologic Oncology, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Ellen Barlow, Gynaecological Oncology Clinical Nurse Consultant, Gynaecological Cancer Centre, The Royal Hospital for Women, NSW; Jason Bonifacio, Practice Manager/ Chief Radiation Therapist, St Vincent’s Clinic, Radiation Oncology Associates and Genesis Cancer Care, NSW; Wendy Cram, Consumer; Kim Hobbs, Social Worker, Gynaecology Oncology, Westmead Hospital, and Chair COSA Social Work Group, NSW; Lyndal Moore, Consumer; Pauline Tanner, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Gynaecological Cancer, WA Cancer and Palliative Care Network, WA.

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