Relationships and sexuality
A cancer diagnosis, treatment side effects and living with the uncertainty of infertility may affect your feelings towards your relationships and your 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, if you have a partner, start talking with them 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 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 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 cope with and talk about these issues.
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 sexual identity and infertility may change your attitude and feelings about sex. 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 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.
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 aroused and explore if it still does
- experiment with things like masturbation, oral sex, sensual massage, lubrication and sex aids (e.g. vibrators or toys)
- focus on enjoyment and pleasure to take the pressure off conceiving
- clearly communicate your feelings or boundaries to a partner (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.
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 or new partner difficult. You might worry that they won’t be interested in you because you’ve had cancer, or because you may not be able to have children or have chosen not to.
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.
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 having cancer and the impact on your fertility.
CanTeen offers counselling to young people aged 12–25 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.
Dr Ying Li, Gynaecologist and Fertility Specialist, RPA Fertility Unit, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Dr Antoinette Anazodo, Paediatric and Adolescent Oncologist, Sydney Children’s Hospital and Prince of Wales Hospital, NSW, and Lead Clinician for Youth Cancer NSW/ACT; Paul Baden, Consumer; Dawn Bedwell, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland; Maurice Edwards, Special Counsel, Watts McCray Lawyers, NSW; Helena Green, Clinical Sexologist and Counsellor, InSync for Life, WA; Dr Michelle Peate, Program Leader, Psychosocial Health and Wellbeing Research (emPoWeR) Unit, Department of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, Royal Women’s Hospital, The University of Melbourne, VIC; A/Prof Kate Stern, Gynaecologist and Reproductive Endocrinologist and Head, Fertility Preservation Service, Royal Women’s Hospital Melbourne, The University of Melbourne, VIC; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Resea ch Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Renee Van Den Bosch, Consumer.
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