- 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.
- 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 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 patient and carer back to being sexual partners.
There are various ways to help manage sexual side effects and maintain intimacy during and after cancer treatment.
How to manage sexual changes
Ways to manage sexual changes include:
- Remember that the best sexual tool is communication.
- Restore the intimacy in your relationship by spending time together. 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 talk 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 physical changes from their illness or treatment.
- Discuss any concerns you have about being intimate with your partner. If you keep quiet and withdraw, your partner may misinterpret your distance and think they’re no longer desirable. Being open with your partner about your sexual needs can help you identify changes to make.
- 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.
- For more on this, call Cancer Council 13 11 20, or see Sexuality, intimacy and cancer.
Tina Chivende, Social Worker, Cancer Psychosocial Service, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, ACT; Gabrielle Asprey, Telephone Support Group Facilitator, Cancer Council NSW; Dr Ben Britton, Senior Clinical and Health Psychologist, Calvary Mater Newcastle and John Hunter Hospital, and Conjoint Lecturer, School of Medicine and Public Health, University of Newcastle, NSW; Valmai Goodwin, Psychologist, Cancer Counselling Service, Cancer Council QLD; Karen Hall, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Zoe Mitchell, Senior Social Worker, Palliative Care, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Amber Rose, Consumer; Carolina Simpson, Policy and Development Officer, Carers NSW.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Click below to download a PDF booklet on this topic.
What is cancer?
How cancer starts and spreads
Emotions and cancer
Here are some suggestions for managing the physical effects of the diagnosis, coping with the diagnosis, as well as how to get support.
View our publications
Guides and fact sheets for people with cancer, their families and friends