How cancer and cancer treatment can affect your sexuality and sex life
Having cancer – and cancer treatment – doesn’t just affect your health: it can touch every part of your life. One of the things that can change is your sex life. The physical effects of surgery, side effects from treatments, and the overwhelming emotions that come with a cancer diagnosis can alter how you feel about sex.
This guide will support you through what can be a difficult and possibly embarrassing time, with understanding and practical advice and information.
In this guide:
Cancer and your sex life
Even if you have enjoyed a satisfying sex life before cancer, you may not feel like having sex – and that’s totally understandable. If you’re in a relationship, do let your partner know how you’re feeling, what you’re comfortable doing, and what you don’t want to do right now. Feeling safe, comfortable, and supported is the most important part of a relationship while you’re dealing with cancer. If sex is not a priority for you right now, it’s important to talk to each other about this. There are many other ways for you and your partner to be intimate and stay close, without having sex.
Sexuality – your feelings and preferences about sex – can be an important part of who you are, whether you’re in a relationship or not. It’s worth thinking about how to accept the changes that might be happening to your body and your emotions. This could help you find a way to feel comfortable with your sexuality and relationships while living with cancer and having treatment. There are plenty of things you can try that can help you deal with any worries you may have.
What kind of changes can cancer and cancer treatment make to your sexuality and sex life?
These are some of the physical and emotional changes you might experience during and after cancer treatment and while you are living with cancer:
Loss of body confidence
Living with cancer can have a significant effect on the way you feel about your body. You might be dealing with hair loss, scars, weight gain from steroids, weight loss, or surgery that has changed your appearance. A sudden change in the way you look can make you feel less confident, and this can affect your feelings about sex.
Not in the mood
There are plenty of reasons why it can be difficult to feel sexually aroused when you have cancer. Even if you want to have sex, the physical and emotional effects of treatment can make it difficult. Women can experience tense vaginal muscles, vaginal dryness, or difficulties reaching orgasm. Men might have problems getting or maintaining an erection, or ejaculating.
Cancer is exhausting, as is cancer treatment, such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and so is all the extra travelling involved in hospital visits. Extreme fatigue could be a side effect of your treatment, and you might have aches and pains. It’s not surprising that many people living with cancer lose interest in sex!
Surgery might leave you with limited movement for some time, due to healing scars or muscle pain. You might also have pain from the cancer itself, or weakness that prevents you from moving as easily as you did before. If you want to have sex, tell your partner which positions are painful for you and which make you feel comfortable – or not.
Having to deal with all or some of these changes can be distressing but there are things you can do that could make a difference – to help you feel happier and more relaxed about your sexuality and sex life. Here are some tips.
If you are anxious about the way your body looks, here are some suggestions:
It’s quite normal – and understandable – not to feel confident or comfortable about being naked. Having sex doesn’t mean you have to be naked; try wearing a camisole, a set of pyjamas, or anything you feel comfortable in. Talking to your partner about it will help them to be sensitive to your feelings and to support you in feeling more confident.
Some pretty new lingerie can boost your confidence and help you to feel in the mood for sex. Even if you’ve had surgery or have sore skin and are spending more time in comfortable bras if, you could choose something a little more sexy – for example, bras designed with cancer side effects in mind. If you are feeling self-conscious about your stomach area or having a stoma, there is a range of flattering lingerie, including vintage-style high-waisted briefs that could make you feel more secure and at ease.
“Very comfortable and soft, has pockets for prosthesis and it is also very pretty!” – Live Better With customer.
Chemotherapy or radiation can cause hair loss, including your eyebrows and eyelashes. Losing these can have a big impact on how you feel about your face, and if your self-esteem has taken a blow, your sex drive might too. Finding the right products to help brighten up your eyes or skin can give you confidence and may make you feel more interested in sex. Try something to fill in your eyebrows or thicken your eyelashes.
“A wig disguises hair loss but lost eyebrows cannot be disguised. I felt very self conscious. So I was delighted and very relieved that this product gave me some of my confidence back.” Deb P, Live Better With customer.
Going through tiring treatments and experiencing changes to your appearance can leave you feeling out of touch with your body. You might not feel like being intimate, or you could be worried about how your partner will react to your new appearance. Gentle exercise is an excellent way to rediscover your body. Some light stretches, yoga, walking, or simply dancing to music at home could help you to feel more in tune with your body and what makes it come alive. And feeling good about your body again could have a positive effect on your sex life.
Many people living with cancer and cancer treatment say they struggle with feeling less clean than they would like. This can happen when you’re recovering from surgery and dealing with scars or because you’re spending a lot of time in hospital. Or perhaps you are coming to terms with having a stoma or ostomy. These feelings are very common, and worth talking about with someone you trust. If you’re concerned about intimate cleanliness, there are some excellent cleansing products that maintain the natural balance of those intimate areas without irritating sensitive skin. If you have a stoma, an odour eliminating spray could give you peace of mind.
“I have a colostomy bag as a consequence of my bowel surgery. This odour eliminator is a blessing. It is extremely efficient not in disguising but actually eliminating the odour.” Live Better With customer.
Getting in the mood
If you are finding it difficult to get into the right mood for sex, here are some suggestions that could help:
Foreplay and communication
Feeling relaxed is the key to enjoyable sex. If you’re feeling tense about how you look or feel, or about anything else going on in your relationship, try to talk about it with your partner. This can help them to help you feel supported, comfortable, and reassured. Sex shouldn’t be all about penetration; touching, kissing, and just being physically close can all help you to feel less tense and emotionally closer to your partner.
Lubricants and moisturisers
If you have vaginal dryness or irritation, a sensitive, chemical-free moisturiser (ideal if you are menopausal or post-menopausal) or lubricant could be your new best friend. They won’t irritate your skin or vaginal tissues and are available as a gel, in a tube, or in small, single-use pipettes that you use to insert moisturiser or lubricant into the vagina before having sex – to give you a more natural feeling.
“Since my chemo started, I am suffering from vaginal dryness and I need extra lubrication to make intercourse comfortable. I have been using . . .water-based gel – it is a lovely product and the best of all I tried.” Live Better With customer.
An aphrodisiac is anything that helps to get you in the mood for sex. Relaxing, scented candles or essential oils can have a calming, sensual effect, or try massages with your partner, using special oils that won’t irritate your skin.
Talking to the right person
Sexual difficulties are far more common than you might think – as is not talking about them because you are too embarrassed. If talking to each other hasn’t done the trick, or if you or your partner would like some advice on how to be intimate when you’ve been affected by cancer, discussing those feelings with a counsellor or a sex therapist could be less awkward than you think. Remember, they’ve heard it all before – and probably much more. They might also be able to help with the more physical aspects of sexual difficulties, such as erectile problems, by referring you to a doctor for medication or any other treatments that can help.
If you want to try having sex, but just can’t find the energy, here are a few suggestions that could help:
Sex can be a bit of a workout – even when you take things slowly! Make sure you feel ready by having an energy-boosting snack a little while beforehand. Something that might also help you feel sexy, like a delicious natural chocolate brownie, or some fresh, juicy fruit, is ideal.
“I love the Pulsin bars. They are such a healthy and tasty snack to have around.” Live Better With customer.
Shake up your schedule
It might sound obvious, but you can have sex at any time of day – not just at bedtime! If you’re taking medications that make you drowsy or very tired at night, try getting close to your partner in the morning. If you have children, maybe there’s a friend or family member who would welcome them for a weekend to give you some valuable uninterrupted time with your partner? Talking to your partner about how you’re feeling and about things that could help is the key. It might not feel as spontaneous, but finding a time when you feel well enough to be interested in and to enjoy sex could be good for both of you.
It doesn’t matter how sexy you’re feeling – if your body is exhausted or in pain, you’re just too tired to actually have sex. Aches and pains are a common side effect of treatment and, if you need to rest, make sure that your partner understands and respects that. If you do feel like having sex, try to get as comfortable as you can before you start. If you have painkillers to help with your treatment, take one about an hour before you have sex; again, it may make having sex seem less spontaneous but, on the plus side, it could help you to feel less tense or achey. Try settling down for a cosy night together in bed, with plenty of comfy cushions, and use heat wraps and muscle rubs to relax sore muscles and soothe painful joints.
Overcoming limited movement
After surgery, healing scars or muscle pain could limit your movement. You could also have pain from the cancer itself, or weakness that stops you from moving as easily as you did before. But, if you want to have sex, tell your partner knows which positions are painful for you and what makes you feel comfortable – or not. Here are some suggestions for positions that might make things easier:
If you’ve had a mastectomy, you might feel unsure about letting your partner see your scars, or it might be uncomfortable to have someone touch them. Facing away from your partner during sex can help avoid this. Try the ‘spoons’ position (lying on your side, with your partner behind you), kneeling (on all fours, with your partner behind you), or standing (perhaps leaning on a secure chair, for safety, or against something comfortable).
A hysterectomy can change your vaginal sensations and you may have scarring that makes things uncomfortable or painful. If you feel ready to have sex, you can reduce any discomfort by going slowly and gently, and avoiding positions that thrust towards the back of the vagina. Face-to-face positions could be more comfortable. If you have vaginal dryness due to menopause (whether a natural menopause or as a result of surgery), try using a skin-sensitive moisturiser to prevent any irritation and to enhance sensation – for you and your partner.
Having a stoma and pouch may make you feel self-conscious in bed. If you’d prefer your partner not to see your stoma during sex, try positions facing away from each other (spoons, kneeling or standing – see Breast surgery above.) You could also try wearing specially designed underwear and high-waisted lingerie that help to keep stomas and pouches in place.
This tip can help everyone, whether you have cancer or not! Use support pillows and cushions to get into a position that feels comfy for both of you. They take the pressure off your muscles, and you can find angles and positions that you’d never be able to reach without support – they can such a difference!
Find recommended Live Better With products to help make your sex life easier, more comfortable and more enjoyable here.
Questions about cancer and cancer treatment and sex
If you have concerns about cancer, cancer treatment and sex, there are several Live Better With blog posts that could help. They include this one, which covers the kind of questions that cancer patients and their partners have about sex but are sometimes too embarrassed to ask:
- Can people with cancer still have sex?
- My partner has cancer. What’s going to happen to our sex life?
- Can chemo be sexually transmitted?
- Can cancer be sexually transmitted?
- How could cancer affect my vagina?
- How do I have sex after prostate surgery?
Share your tips for sex and intimacy
Have you found helpful ways to enjoy sex and stay intimate while living with cancer and cancer treatment? If so, we’d love to hear from you.
Share your tips with the Live Better With cancer community here.