- Cancer Information
- Caring for someone with cancer
- How relationships can change
- Changes in sexuality and intimacy
Changes in sexuality and intimacy
If you are caring for a partner, you may find the cancer and its treatment affects your sexual relationship. This will depend on the type of cancer, the treatment and its side effects.
Learn more about:
Ways caring can affect your sexual relationship
- Tiredness can make people lose interest in sex during and after treatment. This is called a lowered libido.
- Cancer treatments, medicines and pain can also reduce libido and may affect someone’s physical ability to have sex.
- A person’s body image may change during and after treatment, making them feel self-conscious and embarrassed.
- The emotional strain of cancer or caring may preoccupy you and cause you to lose interest in sex.
- Many people worry that physical intimacy might be painful.
- You might find it hard to switch from being carer and patient back to being sexual partners.
- You might feel guilty if your partner is unable or unwilling to be sexually active and you still want a sexual relationship.
How to manage sexual changes
- Talk about how you’re feeling – communication is an important sexual tool.
- Spend time together to maintain intimacy in your relationship. If your partner is well enough, you may be able to go to the cinema or out to dinner. Otherwise, watch a movie at home, give each other massages, do a crossword together, look through old photo albums or chat about how you first met.
- Tell your partner you care. Your partner may need reassurance that you love them and find them attractive despite the changes from their illness or treatment.
- Have your partner show you any body changes before sexual activity. This may allow both of you to get used to how the differences make you feel.
- Discuss any concerns you have about being intimate with your partner. If you keep quiet and withdraw, your partner may misinterpret your actions and think they’re no longer desirable. Being open with your partner about your sexual needs can help you identify ways to manage them.
- Keep an open mind about ways to give and receive sexual pleasure, especially if your usual ways of lovemaking are now uncomfortable or not possible. Some people find lubricants or sexual aids help. For a while, you may need to focus on kissing and cuddling.
- Take things slowly and spend time getting used to being naked together again.
- Be patient. You may find that any awkwardness will improve with time and practice.
- Talk to a counsellor who specialises in helping couples with intimacy and sexual issues. The occupational therapist on your treatment team can suggest practical strategies for positioning and fatigue management.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Laura Kirsten, Principal Clinical Psychologist, Nepean Cancer Care Centre, NSW; Mary Bairstow, Senior Social Worker, Cancer Centre, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Anne Booms, Nurse Practitioner – Supportive and Palliative Care, Icon Cancer Centre Midland, WA; Dr Erica Cameron-Taylor, Staff Specialist, Department of Palliative Care, Mercy Hospice, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Tracey Gardner, Senior Psychologist, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council Queensland; Louise Good, Cancer Nurse Consultant, WA; Verity Jausnik, Senior Policy Officer, Carers Australia; David Larkin, Cancer Supportive Care Manager, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, Canberra Hospital and Health Service, ACT; Kate Martin, Consumer; John McMath, Consumer; Simone Noelker, Physiotherapist and Wellness Centre Coordinator, Ballarat Regional Integrated Cancer Centre, VIC; Tara Redemski, Senior Physiotherapist – Cancer Care, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Dean Rowe, Consumer; Chris Sibthorpe, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.