Relationships and sexuality
A cancer diagnosis, treatment side effects and living with the uncertainty of infertility may affect how you feel about your relationships and your sense of who you are and how you see yourself (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 (see checking fertility after treatment for females and males). This way, you can think about what you want, and if you have a partner, start talking with them about what the future may hold.
Learn more about:
- Communicating with your partner
- Communicating with a new partner
- Sexuality and intimacy
- If you’re a young adult
A cancer diagnosis, infertility and changes to your sexuality can cause tension in a relationship.
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, expectations about becoming a parent, the strength of your relationship before cancer and infertility, and how well you communicate.
Fertility issues may cause conflict between partners. Some partners are very supportive, while others avoid talking about it. If your partner is unwilling to talk 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 talk about these issues and develop strategies to manage conflict.
Communicating with a new partner
If you are in a new relationship, you may be worried about their reaction to your diagnosis, or explaining any fertility concerns.
While the timing will be different for each person, it can be helpful to wait until you and your new partner have developed a mutual level of trust and caring. Start the conversation when you feel ready. It may be easier if you practise what you want to say – and how you would respond to questions your partner may ask – with a friend, family member or health professional.
Sexuality and intimacy
Sexuality is about who you are, how you see yourself, how you express yourself sexually and your sexual feelings for others. Being able to conceive a child may be part of your identity, and infertility may change how you feel about yourself. This can happen if you are in a heterosexual relationship, if you are LGBTQI+ or have a same-gender partner. You may feel that sex is linked with the stress of infertility, and you may lose interest in intimacy and sex (low libido).
Fertility concerns may affect how you feel about your body (body image). You may feel that your body has “let you down”. It will take time to accept any physical and emotional changes. It may be helpful to:
- look after your body with exercise, eating well and sleep
- spend time with a partner doing something you both enjoy.
Resuming sexual activity after cancer treatment
Some cancer treatments may cause physical problems, such as pain during penetrative sex or trouble getting and keeping an erection.
These problems may be difficult for you and your partner, if you have one, but can be managed in various ways:
- think about what used to get you sexually aroused and explore if it still does
- explore different erogenous zones; mutual masturbation; oral sex; personal lubricants; vibrators and other sex toys; erotic images and stories
- focus on getting in the mood and making foreplay enjoyable to take the pressure off getting pregnant
- talk to each other about how fertility concerns are affecting you and discuss ways you can keep enjoying sex (e.g. “I just want to cuddle now” or “That feels good”).
If you feel you need further support, consider talking to a counsellor or sex therapist. To find a counsellor in your local area, speak to your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
For more on this, see Sexuality, intimacy and cancer.
If you’re a young adult
During and after treatment for cancer, young people continue develop and mature. This means living life as normally as possible, which may include going on dates and having a partner. You may feel confused about how much to share with others about having cancer and the impact on your fertility.
Canteen supports young people aged 12–25 who have been affected by cancer. They offer counselling in person or by phone, email or direct messaging (DM). Canteen also runs online forums and camps. To get in touch, call 180 835 932 or visit canteen.org.au.
Podcast: Sex and Cancer
Prof Martha Hickey, Professor of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, The University of Melbourne and Director, Gynaecology Research Centre, The Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC; Dr Sally Baron-Hay, Medical Oncologist, Royal North Shore Hospital and Northern Cancer Institute, NSW; Anita Cox, Cancer Nurse Specialist and Youth Cancer Clinical Nurse Consultant, Gold Coast University Hospital, QLD; Kate Cox, McGrath Breast Health Nurse Consultant, Gawler/ Barossa Region, SA; Jade Harkin, Consumer; A/Prof Yasmin Jayasinghe, Director Oncofertility Program, The Royal Children’s Hospital, Chair, Australian New Zealand Consortium in Paediatric and Adolescent Oncofertility, Senior Research Fellow, The Royal Women’s Hospital and The University Of Melbourne, VIC; Melissa Jones, Nurse Consultant, Youth Cancer Service SA/NT, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Dr Shanna Logan, Clinical Psychologist, The Hummingbird Centre, Newcastle West, NSW; Stephen Page, Family Law Accredited Specialist and Director, Page Provan, QLD; Dr Michelle Peate, Program Leader, Psychosocial Health and Wellbeing Research (emPoWeR) Unit, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, The Royal Women’s Hospital and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Pampa Ray, Consumer; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, and Chief Investigator, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Prof Beverley Vollenhoven AM, Carl Wood Chair, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Monash University and Director, Gynaecology and Research, Women’s and Newborn, Monash Health and Monash IVF, VIC; Lesley Woods, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA.
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