Sexuality and intimacy

Cancer and its treatment may affect your sexuality and intimacy in physical and emotional ways. These changes may be temporary or ongoing and can be difficult to deal with.

Sexual difficulties can affect any cancer survivor, but those most likely to experience long-term sexual problems include:

  • women treated for breast or gynaecological cancers
  • women who experience early menopause
  • men treated for testicular or prostate cancer
  • people treated for cancer of the rectum or lower bowel
  • people who have had head and neck surgery
  • people who have a stoma because of their treatment.

Some people say they were not prepared for the sexual changes caused by treatment. Others say they avoid all forms of intimacy, including hugs, kisses and sharing feelings, because they’re afraid this may lead to sex when they don’t feel physically up to it.

You may not even be aware that you aren’t taking an interest in sex or being as intimate as you were before. If you have a partner, they may feel confused or uncertain about how to react. Let your partner know how you’re feeling and any fears you have about sex. Ask your partner how they’re feeling – they may be worried about hurting you or appearing too eager. You may want to ask your partner to do things differently or talk about other ways of being intimate.

Some people worry that they will never be able to have an intimate relationship again. For most people, 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. Although sexual intercourse may not always be possible, closeness and sharing can still be part of your relationship.

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Common sexual problems after cancer treatment

General Women Men
  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Tiredness and fatigue
  • Changed body image
  • Feeling sexually unattractive
  • Incontinence
  • Painful intercourse
  • Depression or anxiety
  • Relationship changes or pressures
  • Difficulty reaching orgasm
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Reduced vaginal size
  • Loss of sensation
  • Pelvic pain
  • Menopausal symptoms
  • Difficulty getting or maintaining an erection
  • Ejaculation difficulties

Managing sexual difficulties

  • Seek professional advice and support. Talk to your doctor (with or without your partner). A referral to a sex therapist or physiotherapist may help.
  • If you’re having erection problems, ask your doctor if medicine can help.
  • If radiation therapy or surgery has narrowed or shortened the vagina, you may be advised to use a vaginal dilator to help keep the walls of the vagina open and supple.
  • Show affection by touching, hugging, massaging, talking and holding hands.
  • Do some physical activity to boost your energy and mood. Talk to your GP if your low libido is caused by depression.
  • Be intimate at the best time for you (e.g. when your pain is low or energy levels high).
  • Take some pain-killers before having sex if you have ongoing issues with pain.
  • Spend more time on foreplay and try different ways of getting aroused: shower together, have a weekend away, dance, wear something sexy. Do whatever makes you feel good about yourself.
  • Use a water or silicone-based lubricant during sex. Avoid products with perfumes or colouring to reduce irritation.
  • Try different positions during sex to work out which is the most comfortable for you.
  • If sexual penetration is painful or difficult, explore different ways to orgasm or climax.
  • If you feel comfortable, stimulate yourself. This may reassure you that you can still enjoy sex. Or you may want to stimulate your partner and help them reach orgasm, even if you don’t want any stimulation for yourself.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.

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Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
  • open EPUB files directly from Mobile Safari and open them in iBooks, where they are saved automatically by downloading the EPUB from the website.

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To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
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Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

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Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
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Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in April 2018
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Cancer information

Sexuality, intimacy and cancer
Learn more about the ways cancer and its treatment may affect your sexuality and how to deal with these challenges

Staying healthy after treatment
Lifestyle changes that can help keep you in good health

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Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends