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- Sexuality, intimacy and cancer
- Sexuality after a cancer diagnosis
Sexuality after a cancer diagnosis
Read below to learn more about the impacts a cancer diagnosis may have on your sexuality.
Learn the answers to these questions:
- How does cancer affect sexuality?
- Do people really think about sex when they have cancer?
- Will my doctor want to talk about sexuality?
- Who else can I talk to?
- How soon can I have sex?
- Will I put my partner at risk?
- Can sex make the cancer worse?
- Will I ever enjoy sex again?
- How can we feel like sexual partners again?
- What if I don’t have a partner?
Most people who have had cancer treatment say they experience changes in sexuality and intimacy. For some it’s temporary, while others need to adapt to long-term changes. Many people find this to be one of the hardest aspects of life after cancer.
Talking about how your sexuality has changed can be difficult. However, the challenges of a cancer diagnosis can also strengthen a relationship, improve how you communicate, and lead to new ways to express sexuality and intimacy.
The most obvious impacts cancer has on sexuality are physical. Treatment for some types of cancer can directly affect how you have sex, your enjoyment of sex or your desire to have sex (your libido).
A cancer diagnosis can also influence how you feel about your body (body image), your emotions and relationships. All of these can change how you feel about sex. The stress of a cancer diagnosis and treatment can affect these things too. Any stress you already had in your life or relationship may become more intense, so finding ways to manage this is important.
For some, sex is the last thing on their mind after a cancer diagnosis and during treatment. For others, maintaining their sex life throughout this time is important. Having or returning to a fulfilling sexual and intimate life can allow people to reconnect to their body and partner again in a pleasurable way.
Sex was the last thing on my mind when I found out I had cancer. I couldn’t imagine ever having desire again. But after the treatment was over, it came back.Pat
Sexuality is a normal and important part of health, but you can’t assume your doctor will discuss it with you. Unfortunately that doesn’t always happen. The topic may be overlooked for a variety of reasons:
- Your doctor may think that if you don’t ask about sex, it’s something that you don’t want to talk about.
- There may not be the time or privacy needed for a lengthy or sensitive discussion.
- Your doctor may not feel comfortable talking about sex.
- You may not know that there are treatments available for many sexuality concerns, so you don’t think to ask your treatment team.
Some cancer treatments directly affect sexuality, so knowing what to expect and how to have sex safely is important. During and after treatment you can ask questions, discuss any changes and share your concerns with your health care team. If they don’t know how to help you, they can direct you to someone who does.
If you don’t feel comfortable or safe talking with your health professional, speak to another person on the team or ask for a referral to someone else (e.g. you may prefer to see a female doctor).
Talk to your general practitioner (GP), specialist or someone on your health care team who you feel comfortable with. They can refer you to a health professional who specialises in sexuality.
Health professionals who can help
|nurse||administers drugs and provides care, information, and support throughout treatment|
|cancer care coordinator||a specialist nurse who coordinates your care, liaises with other members of your health care team, and supports you and your family throughout treatment; care may also be coordinated by a clinical nurse consultant (CNC) or clinical nurse specialist (CNS)|
|continence physiotherapist||provides exercises to help strengthen pelvic floor muscles and improve bladder and bowel control|
|occupational therapist||assists in adapting your living and working environment to help you resume usual activities, including sex, after treatment|
|physiotherapist||helps with restoring movement and mobility after treatment, strengthening pelvic floor, and recommending aids and equipment|
|psychologist, counsellor, clinical psychologist*||help you manage your emotional response to diagnosis and treatment; provide support and advice about sexuality and intimacy|
|sexual health physician/doctor*, sex therapist||can help you, or you and your partner, with sexuality concerns before and after treatment|
|social worker||links you to support services and helps you with d/or financial issues|
This depends on the treatment you’ve had and how fast you recover – both physically and emotionally. You can begin kissing or touching as soon as you want to. Ask your doctor when it will be safe for certain sexual activities, such as penetrative intercourse. This time is called a minimum waiting period. It is for medical reasons, and helps to prevent injury or infection after surgery.
It’s normal to worry or be nervous about having sex again after cancer treatment. If you feel unwell you may not want to have sex, so don’t feel pressured to do so before you’re ready.
Will I put my partner at risk?
Your partner cannot “catch” cancer from you. After some types of treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiation therapy, your doctor may advise you to protect your partner by using barrier contraception, such as condoms, or dental dams for oral sex, for a short time. For more on this, see Safety concerns for partners.
So long as you follow your doctor’s time line of what’s safe, sexual activity will not make the cancer worse or make it come back. In fact, the emotional benefits of physical affection or connection with a partner may help you to cope with treatment and recovery.
Most people can have a fulfilling sex life after cancer, but you may need to learn different ways to give and receive sexual pleasure depending on what treatment you’ve had. Like any new skill, this can take time and practice. Some people say that because they try new things, their sex lives end up being better after cancer.
My sexual partner has always wanted to have sex with me – this made me feel good about myself after my surgery.Daphina
During cancer treatment, relationships often change. Sometimes this happens gradually almost without noticing, and sometimes it is more sudden and obvious. Discussing the changes with your partner can feel awkward, but it’s an opportunity to develop ways to manage sexuality and intimacy. Spending time together as a couple can help build closeness. For ways to connect, see Ways to communicate.
Sexuality is important whether you are single or in a relationship. Ask your treatment team about any concerns you have and when it’s safe to start sexual activity such as masturbation.
You may be worried about finding a new partner, and how you will tell them about the effects of the cancer. See What words should I use for ways to talk to a potential partner. You can also ask for a referral to a sex therapist if you want to build up your sexual confidence.
For tips from health professionals and personal insights about sexuality, listen to our Sex and Cancer podcast below.
Podcast: Sex and Cancer
Dr Margaret McGrath, Head of Discipline: Occupational Therapy, Sydney School of Health Sciences, The University of Sydney, NSW; Yvette Adams, Consumer; Dr Kimberley Allison, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andreea Ardeleanu, Mental Health Accredited Social Worker, Cancer Counselling Service, Canberra Health Service, ACT; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Kerrie Clover, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Psycho-Oncology Service, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Maree Grier, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Mark Jenkin, Consumer; Bronwyn Jennings, Gynaecology Oncology Clinical Nurse Consultant, Mater Health, QLD; Dr Rosalie Power, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Dr Margaret Redelman OAM, Medical Practitioner and Clinical Psychosexual Therapist, Sydney, NSW; Kerry Santoro, Prostate Cancer Specialist Nurse Consultant, Southern Adelaide Local Health Network, SA; Simone Sheridan, Sexual Health Nurse Consultant, Sexual Health Services – Austin Health, Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre, VIC; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Heath Psychology and Chief Investigator, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Paula Watt, Clinical Psychologist, WOMEN Centre, WA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
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