Cancer can bring with it the kind of symptoms and side effects that you’d really rather not talk about. But remember that while you may be embarrassed, your doctor isn’t! Here are tips for facing up to cancer taboos, from bad breath to sex issues...

It’s 10 years since Hollywood superstar, Michael Douglas, was diagnosed with throat cancer and, at the time, his doctors advised him against going public, at least in any detail. It wasn’t until 2013 that he began to talk more openly about the type of cancer he had and its possible cause – the human papilloma virus, transmitted through oral sex. (You can read the Guardian interview here.) While the actor’s frankness may have shocked some people, many others welcomed his willingness to speak about something that, in the past, would have been regarded as taboo, to be mentioned only behind closed doors and in hushed tones. 

We may have come a long way since our Victorian ancestors in terms of what we’re prepared to talk about and in using the correct words to name a diagnosis – breast cancer, for example. 

Nevertheless there are still many aspects of cancer, including types of cancer and side effects of treatment, that people find embarrassing, and sometimes impossible, to talk about, even with doctors and nurses or loved ones.

So what are the most common cancer taboos, how can we find the right words when we have to talk about difficult medical conditions, and what can help with embarrassing symptoms? Willingness to be frank and open about your diagnosis and symptoms could make a significant difference to your recovery in so many ways. Putting off a visit to the doctor because you’re embarrassed is never a good idea.

Don’t let shame or embarrassment about cancer put you at risk

Referring to cancer as (whisper it) the C-word seems to be on the wane but in some traditions and cultures, cancer itself is regarded as taboo and can even be seen as a kind of punishment. As a result, some people – and women, in particular, it seems – put off consulting a doctor even when they have very worrying symptoms. As a result, a cancer diagnosis can sometimes come too late, with heartbreaking consequences.

Cancer is not a punishment, although treatment can be gruelling; so, if you have any symptoms that are worrying you, do see a doctor as soon as possible. Medical professionals are there to help you, not to judge you, and, when it comes to cancer, especially certain types of cancer, early diagnosis and prompt treatment can make a full recovery much more likely.

What are the cancer taboos – the things that make you go ‘eeurgh’?

The embarrassing taboo topics fall into two categories: types of cancer and types of symptoms (from the cancer itself or as a result of cancer treatment) and they almost always relate to particular parts of the body or body functions. Anything to do with our genitalia (our reproductive organs) and our bladders and bowels is right up there at the top of the list. So the list includes prostate, bowel and cervical cancer, for example, and physical symptoms such as vaginal dryness, inability to get an erection and sexual problems of any kind, halitosis (bad breath), incontinence, eructation and flatulence (or belching and farting, if you prefer) and even weight gain and obesity. 

Mental and emotional symptoms also make an appearance because we often think we should be keeping a stiff upper lip, grateful that our cancer is being treated. We avoid mentioning the fact that cancer or cancer treatment is making us depressed or anxious or keeping us awake at night, or all three – and more.

You may be embarrassed but your doctor isn’t!

‘Bleeding, vaginas, and the many issues that women face are something that I deal with a lot. So for me it’s certainly not embarrassing... I think it’s important for men to join this discussion…education is vital as well. During sex education boys need to learn what happens to a woman so it feeds into that understanding.’ Dr Rupy Aulja, GP, health writer and supporter of the Eve Appeal’s I am Adam campaign

However nervous you feel about what you think are embarrassing symptoms, your doctor isn’t going to be shocked or embarrassed. As doctors so often say, they’ve seen and heard it all before.

Try to use the correct words, if you can; a vulva is a vulva, it isn’t a lady garden or a front bottom, and your penis and testicles are just that - they’re not your crown jewels or your tackle. The more specific you can be with your doctor, the better. One former cancer patient said that she had been brought up always to refer to her vulva as ‘Mary’, which had caused some confusion at medical appointments when she was an adult! 

If you know you’re going to struggle to explain or discuss what is worrying you, make a list beforehand, or keep a mini journal, with a note of when your symptoms occur and what, if anything, triggers them. You can give your list or journal to your doctor or practice nurse at your appointment but do be prepared to answer any questions they may have.

If you can take a deep breath and use those seemingly taboo words, you might just be doing someone else a favour too. A teacher who was being treated for vulval cancer told us that a work colleague had expressed surprise that ‘you could have cancer down there’. Well, that’s one more person who now knows that you can. (We’re pleased to report that the teacher, who consulted her GP when she first noticed abnormal symptoms, was promptly treated and has since made a complete recovery.)

Help with symptoms that make you feel awkward

One of the main aims of Live Better With is to help you deal with or ease some of the many side effects of cancer and cancer treatment, including the ones you’d rather not mention. (That said, we do urge you to speak to your doctor about any symptoms or side effects that are worrying you or that are persistent.) 

Here’s a round up of recommended Live Better With products that could help:

Bad breath (halitosis)

Bad breath can have many causes, including oral surgery, acid reflux, mouth infections, a dry mouth and constipation. A daily mouth care routine can really help and you’ll find a wide range of excellent products here; they include this antibacterial Ozalys Comfort Care Mouthwash, which is made with ginger and mint, and our own Live Better With Sore and Dry Mouth Set, consisting of toothpaste, mouth gel, mouth spray and mouthwash.

Bowel and bladder problems

Whether you’re struggling to deal with treatment side effects such as incontinence or an ostomy – or even mobility problems that make personal hygiene routines difficult, you’ll find a product that could help here. Stylish incontinence underwear, like these pretty lacy briefs, not only make you feel more secure but can make what might be an embarrassing condition much more bearable. If you are living with an ostomy and worried about odour, especially if you are away from home, Ostomist spray does a great job at neutralising any odour, fast and effectively – and it’s environmentally friendly.

And our customers give the Buckingham EasyWipe Bottom Wiper five stars – all the reviews mention that it has put an end to any embarrassment when personal hygiene has been difficult.

Having sex

If you’re looking for a lubricant, for example, or intimacy aids generally, this is the place for you. Our recommended products include Yes VM, an organic, water-based vaginal moisturiser, Yes WB lubricant, and specially designed intimacy underwear for ostomates (people living with an ostomy).

You’ll find the full range of Live Better with products here. It’s worth taking the time to browse our online shop to see if there is something that could help you. And the advantage of buying online is that it saves the awkwardness or embarrassment you might feel if in a busy local or high street shop.

Our articles and guides – answering those taboo cancer questions 

As well as offering products that can help you cope with the effects of cancer and cancer treatment, Live Better With has a great range of online articles and guides that tackle those taboo subjects. They include:

When it comes to taboo subjects, there’s safety in numbers

‘I was diagnosed with anal cancer, have been clear for just a few months shy of five years. The thing is since the cancer I have issues with controlling my bowels. Highly embarrassing…has anyone else experienced this? Any suggestions?’ Live Better With community member

This is typical of the questions that our Community Forum members post on topics they find difficult or embarrassing. It attracted many comments and suggestions, including which type of pads to use, having a Macmillan toilet card, and a list of foods that are best avoided. Our member found the information and suggestions very helpful in preparing for her medical appointments: ‘Thank you everyone for the responses. I knew I wasn’t the only person out there with these after effects.’ She now felt that she had, ‘… things to research and discuss with my doctors.’

By Diane Trembath


If you’re finding it difficult to talk about a subject you find embarrassing, do visit the Live Better With Community Forum. It’s free to join and packed with tips and advice from people like you, who are living with cancer and the effects of cancer treatment. You can post questions and comments and share information on anything that has helped you.