Cancer, sex and intimacy: 6 common questions after a cancer diagnosis
By Cancer Council NSW
When you’re first diagnosed with cancer, it’s natural to focus on getting well and sex might be the last thing on your mind. But sexuality and intimacy are important to our wellbeing and self-esteem. And most people who’ve been affected by cancer say that they have also experienced changes in their sex lives.
In this blog, we’ll look at six sex-related questions that people affected by cancer are commonly faced with.
1. How can cancer affect my sex life?
Cancer and cancer treatment can affect your emotional wellbeing, which can have an impact on your sex life. Some of the emotions that you may feel include:
Anger – You may feel angry about having cancer and about the ways it has affected your life, including your sexuality, your appearance or your ability to have children (fertility).
Depression – Feeling sad after a cancer diagnosis is common. It can lead to other feelings such as irritability, anxiety or less interest in activities you previously enjoyed, which can include sex.
Shame – You may feel ashamed by changes to how you look, your sexuality, or the way your body functions.
Maintaining a fulfilling sexual and intimate life after a cancer diagnosis can allow people to feel ‘normal’ again. How soon you can have sex after a diagnosis varies depending on the type of treatment you receive and the speed of your recovery – both physically and emotionally. For example, your doctor may advise you to wait before having sex for medical reasons, such as preventing injury or infection after surgery.
It’s perfectly normal if you feel hesitant or nervous about having sex after cancer treatment such as radiotherapy, chemotherapy or surgery. This is because your body might have changed or you might feel different about sex. Some common experiences include:
Tiredness and fatigue
Difficulty feeling desire or pleasure during sex
Changes in hormone levels
Changed body image (e.g. due to scarring, removal of a body part, hair loss or changes in weight)
3. How do I start having sex again after treatment?
It’s common for couples in long-term relationships to get in the habit of having sex in a particular way. When something happens to you that affects the way your body works or the way you feel about yourself, you may need to find new ways to be sexual and intimate together.
It’s important to find ways to talk openly with your partner about any new concerns you have about being intimate with them again. Take things slowly, explore your preferences and talk about them with your partner – let them know if they should do anything differently from before or how they can help you to feel pleasure.
We know that this can be easier said than done as there may be feelings of embarrassment or fear of rejection. But while it might be easier to avoid talking about sex, this can often lead to frustration and confusion as neither of you will have your needs met.
You can find tips on how to broach the topic with your partner in our guide to sexuality, intimacy and cancer. We’d also recommend talking to your doctor or asking for a referral to a sexual health physician or sex therapist to help you find shared solutions.
4. Does it get better? Will I ever enjoy sex again?
The good news is that most people have very fulfilling sex lives after cancer. Like any new skill, it can take some time and practice, but research has found that many people say their sex lives are actually better after cancer. This comes from having to try new things, working on communication with your partner and spending more time connecting over activities like oral sex or digital penetration.
It can often make things easier to ease back into an active sex life with your partner if you actively plan ahead for sex. This can help make sure you’re prepared to cope with issues like pain, fatigue and changes to your body. Learning mindfulness and relaxation techniques can also help you feel more engaged during sex.
If you’re going through cancer but don’t have a partner, you might not think about raising sexual issues with your treatment team. But your sexuality is just as important as anyone else’s.
You may be worried around starting a new sexual relationship with someone after experiencing cancer. It can be difficult to know when to tell them about changes to your body (such as that you’ve had a breast removed, had a breast reconstruction, need assistance having an erection or have a stoma) or explaining any issues you might have with fertility.
Remember to take your time and only let a new partner know how cancer has changed your body when you feel ready. We have some more tips including suggestions on how to bring the topic up in our guide to sexuality, intimacy and cancer (see page 34). We would also recommend asking for a referral to a sex therapist to help build your sexual confidence for a future relationship.
6. Will cancer treatment affect my fertility?
This is a common question as some cancer treatments can cause temporary or permanent infertility or make it difficult to conceive a baby. It can also be a confronting question – whether you’re a young person who’s never contemplated having children before, your family is already complete, or you weren’t planning to have children at all. There is no one right way of coping – if you experience strong feelings of grief, anger or depression, it may help to discuss your feelings with your partner, a counsellor, psychologist, oncologist or oncology nurse.
If fertility is important to you, talk to your doctor before treatment starts about your risk of infertility and ways to preserve your fertility. It may be possible to store your eggs, sperm or embryos for future use.
On the flip side, we also recommend asking your doctor what precautions you should take during treatment to protect your partner and reduce any potential risk of cancer treatment harming an unborn baby. If you or your partner become pregnant during treatment, tell your cancer specialist immediately.
While these are six of the most common sex-related questions that face people affected by cancer, this list is by no means exhaustive.
If you have a question related to cancer, sex and intimacy, please call our Cancer Information and Support Line on 13 11 20. If you speak a language other than English, you can contact our Translator service on 13 14 50 or we can arrange a telephone interpreter for you. You can also speak to a social worker at your treatment centre, and they can request assistance for you.