Let’s Talk about Sex—and Cancer

September 14, 2021
Let’s Talk about Sex—and Cancer

Written by Sarah Kown

Reviewed for medical accuracy by Dr. Victoria Croog

Chances are, you probably haven’t received any information from your doctor or hospital around sex with cancer since your cancer diagnosis. And let’s be honest: sex may have been the last thing on your mind when you began this journey.

There are several ways in which cancer can impact your sex life: stress, decreased libido, body image shifts and treatment side effects such as erectile dysfunction and infertility.

Cancer can also change your relationship with your partner. Sometimes it can bring people closer together, but unfortunately, it can also drive people apart. Your partner may have had to take on the role of your caregiver which can change the dynamics of your relationship. They may also have seen you at your worst, which can affect your self esteem and confidence.

If this is the case, there are different ways of improving your sex life after cancer treatment:

1. Communicate: Whether you’re in a monogamous relationship or looking for a fling, it’s important to communicate your boundaries and desires as you navigate sex during or after treatment for cancer. It’s important, too, to listen to your partner's needs and desires. Because cancer treatment and side effects can be all-encompassing, you might have to revise your typical foreplay and cancer sex life to fit your changing body’s needs. That also might require more communication than usual. Even if it feels awkward at first, learning to voice your concerns and listen to your partner simultaneously will help you develop healthy boundaries.

2. Find Intimacy Outside Sex: If you find yourself struggling to have your usual sex drive or pleasure from sex, you can still find ways to be intimate with your partner without sex. Try a candlelit bath together, hold hands in a walk through the park, or start a new hobby that you can learn together.

3. Masturbate: Nobody wants to talk about this, but intimacy after cancer can be tough so rediscovering your body when it is undergoing many changes can help you better know what is comfortable or uncomfortable for you before having sex. This will help you redirect your partner when needed, and build your confidence. If you’d like to try out some new toys to fit your changing body, the female-owned business Spectrum Boutique is a great place to start.

4. Use Water-Based Lubricant: Using water-based lubricants for intimacy after cancer can help you avoid vaginal or anal irritation that might come from silicone condom usage.

5. Seek Therapy When Needed: When it’s challenging to communicate what you need or come up with solutions that match both partners’ desires, it maybe be helpful to employ a marriage or sex therapist. These therapists can help problem-solve solutions for when sex with cancer is painful, explore other ways of being intimate outside of sex, and cultivating romance like in the beginning of the relationship. 

Even if you’re single, you could benefit from speaking with a therapist about your new cancer sex life. Therapists can help singles overcome any insecurities they have about dating after cancer or coping with things like menopause or infertility

6. Talk to a Physiotherapist. If you’re experiencing physical side effects from cancer treatment that are keeping you from having sex or intimacy after cancer, you’re not alone. Cancer treatments can have a variety of side effects for both men and women alike, such as diarrhea, bladder irritation, vaginal dryness and tightening, erectile dysfunction, difficulty with achieving climax, and impotence or early menopause. The solutions that doctors prescribe are gender-dependent.

- For women: Women who have had radiation to the pelvis should use vaginal dilators after treatment to avoid vaginal tightening or pain caused by scar tissue development. Dilators can be purchased online, and you can ask your doctor how to use them or find instructions online from a reputable government or hospital website. Some doctors also will recommend hormones or hormone creams. Check with your doctor about their suggestions for your body specifically.

- For men: Erectile dysfunction is normal and can be treated with prescriptions and surgeries such as penile implants.

Sex and intimacy after cancer come with several health benefits. They can still be part of your life during and after cancer treatment to a capacity in which you’re comfortable.

Learn More About Own Your Cancer Coaching 

Sarah Kown and Christine Squires created Own Your Cancer Coaching to help people throughout their cancer journey by providing them with the knowledge and tools they will need to optimize control of their health. Sarah, a Medical Physicist and Radiation Oncology Therapist, and Christine, a Behavioral Health Counselor, are working together to create guided course content that will help patients make transformative change in unique and practical ways.

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