Impact on sexuality and intimacy
Head and neck cancer can affect your sexuality in both emotional and physical ways. Reduced interest in sex (low libido) is common during cancer treatment. Continuing to feel tired after treatment and feeling anxious about cancer returning may also affect your sexual wellbeing. If your appearance has changed, you may worry that you are less sexually attractive or you may be grieving the loss of how you used to look.
Treatment for head and neck cancer sometimes causes side effects such as dry mouth, bad breath, thick and sticky saliva, poor tongue and lip movement, facial palsy, scars, or a stiff neck and jaw. These side effects can all make kissing and oral sex difficult or less pleasant.
Surgery to the mouth may reduce feeling in the tongue or lips. This can affect the enjoyment and stimulation from kissing, but feeling should return in 12–18 months. If your speech is altered, this may affect your self‑esteem and ability to express yourself during sex.
You or your partner may be afraid of having sex if the cancer was HPV-related. A long-term partner is likely to have already had the virus and cleared it without having any symptoms. Their immune system remembers it and stops an infection developing again. Talk to your doctors if you are concerned about the risk of passing on HPV to a long-term or new partner.
Some people choose to express their feelings in other ways, such as cuddling, holding hands or touching cheek-to-cheek. You may wish to talk to a psychologist or sexual health professional, by yourself or with a partner, to help you find ways to adapt to any sexual changes.
For more on this, see Sexuality, intimacy and cancer.
Podcast: Sex and Cancer
A/Prof Richard Gallagher, Head and Neck Surgeon, Director of Cancer Services and Head and Neck Cancer Services, St Vincent’s Health Network, NSW; Dr Sophie Beaumont, Head of Dental Oncology, Dental Practitioner, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Dr Bena Brown, Speech Pathologist, Princess Alexandra Hospital, and Senior Research Fellow, Menzies School of Health Research, QLD; Dr Teresa Brown, Assistant Director, Nutrition and Dietetics, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Lisa Castle-Burns, Head and Neck Cancer Specialist Nurse, Canberra Region Cancer Centre, The Canberra Hospital, ACT; A/Prof Ben Chua, Radiation Oncologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, GenesisCare Rockhampton and Brisbane, QLD; Elaine Cook, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Andrew Foreman, Specialist Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA; Tony Houey, Consumer; Dr Annette Lim, Medical Oncologist and Clinician Researcher – Head and Neck and Non-melanoma Skin Cancer, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre and The University of Melbourne, VIC; Paula Macleod, Head, Neck and Thyroid Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Northern Sydney Cancer Centre, Royal North Shore Hospital, NSW; Dr Aoife McGarvey, Physiotherapist and Accredited Lymphoedema Practitioner, Physio Living, Newcastle, NSW; Rick Pointon, Consumer; Teresa Simpson Senior Clinician, Psycho-Oncology Social Work Service, Cancer Therapy Centre, Liverpool Hospital, NSW.
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Managing cancer side effects
Learn more about the range of side effects cancer can cause, and how to manage them.