With all the life changes that cancer can bring, sexuality sometimes gets lost in the shuffle. You may be juggling appointments, dealing with treatment side effects, and making alternate work or childcare arrangements. Is there time and energy for sex?
Remember, sexuality is an important part of who you are and sex contributes to your overall well-being. It may be difficult to talk about, but it’s perfectly normal to wonder how cancer will affect your sexual relationships.
So, let’s look at some common questions about cancer and sexuality.
If I have cancer, will I have sexual problems?
You might. Much depends on the type of cancer and treatment you have, your level of sexual functioning before treatment, your general health, and the quality of your relationship before treatment. Your doctor can give you more specifics about your situation.
What kinds of sexual issues might cancer patients face?
Both men and women may lose interest in or desire for sex. They may experience pain or have problems reaching orgasm.
For men, common problems include erectile dysfunction (the inability to get or maintain an erection suitable for sex), ejaculation difficulties, and retrograde ejaculation (when semen goes backward into the bladder instead of out of the penis).
For women, pain with intercourse is often a problem. Women may experience vaginal dryness from hormonal treatments. Surgery may change the size or shape of the vagina. Some women lose sensation in their genitals.
What causes sexual problems for cancer patients?
Many problems are treatment-related. Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, and surgery can all affect sexual function. For example, prostate cancer surgery may damage nerves around the prostate, impairing a man’s ability to have an erection.
Sometimes medications used to treat cancer have sexual side-effects. Women who take medications for breast cancer may experience vaginal dryness or lose interest in sex. Medications and cancer treatment can also cause fatigue and discomfort, which also affect sexual function.
Some causes are emotional, too. Depression is common among cancer patients. Many feel frightened, confused, and exhausted. They may feel anxious about sex. If they have had surgery, such as a mastectomy, they might worry that their partner will no longer find them attractive. Partners, too, can be anxious. They may be concerned over hurting the person they love if they start sexual activity. Relationships can suffer under the strain of cancer treatment. Both parties may be uncertain about the future and mourn the closeness they once had.
If I have sexual problems related to cancer, what can I do?
Your doctor is the best person to address any specific issues. However, there are a number of things cancer patients and their partners can do to work through sexual problems.
Communicate. You and your partner are a team, so being open with each other is important. If something hurts, either physically or emotionally, talk about it. If you feel fatigued or scared, bring it up. Communication can help keep you on the same page. If you and your partner have trouble communicating, you might consider seeing a therapist, either alone or together.
Be prepared. Ask your doctor what sexual problems you might face because of cancer. He or she can offer strategies to help. For example, people who feel self-conscious about their appearance after surgery may decide to wear a tank top or lingerie to cover a scar or ostomy pouch. Also, be sure you understand that some cancer treatments may change your sexual function for good. This doesn’t always happen, but being prepared can help you and your partner cope and develop new ways to be intimate.
Be patient. Sometimes it takes time for sexual desire and function to return. Don’t feel you need to rush. There is no timetable. However, if you do feel the spark, don’t be afraid to act on it, as long as your doctor says it’s okay.
Keep an open mind. You and your partner may not be able to have sex the way you used to. Still, there are plenty of other techniques to explore. You may need to try different positions. Perhaps having sex at a different time of day or in a different location will work better. Oral sex or using sex toys may also help.
Remember that intimacy doesn’t have to mean intercourse. Hugging, kissing, cuddling are all ways to express intimacy. Even giving your partner a smile or a compliment is a way to show that you care and keep your relationship solid.
Ask for help. Your cancer care team is there for you in all aspects of treatment. Sexual health is important to your overall health, so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Your doctor may recommend certain strategies or products. Or, you might be referred to a sexual health expert, such as a sex therapist. Couples can go to therapy alone or together.
If you think depression is affecting your sex life, be sure to address that too. Counseling can be effective for both patients and couples. Some counselors can help with relationship problems or help single people who might be anxious about dating during their cancer treatment.
You might also look for a support group – either in person or online – for your type of cancer. People who have had the same experiences can make suggestions, such as a lubricant for vaginal dryness or a different sexual position to try. In an online group, you may be able to ask questions anonymously.
What if I’m single?
Single people with cancer may feel especially vulnerable. Many fear that a potential partner may be wary of a cancer diagnosis or be afraid of getting cancer.
If you are single, remember that the right partner will want to be with you regardless of cancer. That partner will be attracted to you because of who you are. In time, as the relationship progresses, you can discuss cancer with that person, along with any adjustments you may need to make. You can also assure your new partner that cancer is not transmitted sexually.
Has cancer affected your sexual relationships? How? Feel free to tell us your story by leaving a comment.