Relationships and sexuality
A cancer diagnosis, treatment side effects and living with the uncertainty of infertility may affect your feelings towards your relationships and sexuality.
Whether or not you have a partner, it may be a good idea to find out your fertility status as soon as you feel ready. This way, you can reflect on what you want and/or start a conversation with a partner about what the future may hold.
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Cancer, infertility and changes to your sexuality can put pressure on your relationship with a partner.
Your partner will also experience a range of emotions, which may include helplessness, frustration, fear, anger and sadness. How your relationship is affected may depend on how long you have been together, the strength of your relationship before cancer and/or infertility, and how well you communicate.
Everyone copes with infertility in their own way. Some partners are very supportive, while others avoid talking about it.
Fertility issues may become a source of unspoken tension between partners. If your partner is reluctant to participate in discussions about fertility, you might feel like you’re coping alone or making all the decisions. It can also be challenging if you and your partner disagree about what to do and focus on different outcomes. Seeing a fertility counsellor can help you cope with these issues.
Sexuality and intimacy
Sexuality is about who you are and how you feel as a man or woman. Being able to conceive a child may be part of your sexual identity, and infertility may change what you think about yourself. You may feel that sex is linked with the stress of infertility and you may lose interest in intimacy and sex (low libido).
Some cancer treatments may cause specific physical problems, such as pain during penetrative sex or erectile dysfunction. These problems may be difficult for you and for your partner, if you have one.
Fertility issues cause some people to have a negative body image or feel that their body has “let them down”. It will take time to accept any physical and emotional changes. It may be helpful to:
- nurture your body with exercise, a healthy diet and sleep
- set aside some time to have a date with a partner
- think about what used to get you sexually stimulated and explore if it still does
- experiment with things like masturbation, oral sex, sensual massage, lubrication and sex aids (e.g. vibrators or toys)
- try to focus on enjoyment and pleasure, rather than conception
- clearly communicate your feelings or boundaries to a partner (e.g. “I just want to cuddle now” or “That feels good”).
Counselling may also help. Ask your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for a referral to a counsellor in your local area. For more on this, see Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.
Starting a new relationship
Many people deal with a cancer diagnosis without the support of a partner. If you wish to start a new relationship, you may find explaining fertility issues to a potential partner or new partner difficult. You might worry that they won’t be interested in you because you’ve had cancer, or because you can’t have children or have chosen not to.
Start the conversation when you feel ready. You may want to talk through the scenario with a friend, family member or health professional to practise what to say and think about answers to questions your partner may ask.
If you’re a young adult
During and after cancer treatment, young people want to continue living life as normally as possible. This may include having a boyfriend or girlfriend. You may feel confused about how much to share about your cancer diagnosis and the impact on your fertility.
CanTeen offers counselling to young people aged 12–24 who have been affected by cancer. This can be in person or by phone, email or instant messaging. It also runs online forums and camps. Call 1800 835 932 or visit canteen.org.au.
We thank the reviewers of this booklet: Dr Yasmin Jayasinghe, Paediatric Gynaecologist, Royal Children’s Hospital Melbourne, Co-chair Fertility Preservation Taskforce, Melbourne, and Senior Lecturer, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Melbourne, VIC; Dr Peter Downie, Head, Paediatric Haematology-Oncology and Director, Children’s Cancer Centre, Monash Children’s Hospital, and Director, Victorian Paediatric Integrated Cancer Service, VIC; Carmen Heathcote, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Aaron Lewis, Consumer; Pampa Ray, Consumer; Dr Sally Reid, Gynaecologist, Fertility SA and Advanced Gynaecological Surgery Centre, Visiting Consultant, Women’s and Children’s Hospital, and Clinical Senior Lecturer, School of Paediatrics and Reproductive Health, The University of Adelaide, SA; A/Prof Kate Stern, Head, Fertility Preservation Service, The Royal Women’s Hospital and Melbourne IVF and Head, Endocrine/Metabolic Clinic, Royal Women’s Hospital, and Co-chair, AYA cancer fertility preservation guidance working group, VIC.
Fertility and Cancer was developed as part of a research study into the experience of fertility after cancer led by Prof Jane Ussher at the Centre for Health Research, Western Sydney University. For a list of the other chief and partner investigators, see cancercouncil.com.au. We acknowledge the input of Dr Amanda Hordern and Prof Jane Ussher, who collaborated on the original draft. We thank CanTeen Australia and the American Cancer Society for permission to draw on their resources. We also thank the cancer survivors who took part in the Western Sydney University research project on fertility and cancer, and whose accounts have been quoted in this booklet.
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