How does cancer affect your sex life?

Having cancer doesn’t just affect your health - the experience can touch all aspects of your life. One of the things that can change is your sex life. Physical effects of surgery, side effects from treatments, and the big emotions that come along with a cancer diagnosis can all change how you feel about sex.

 

If you don’t feel like having sex, that’s totally understandable! If you’re in a relationship, it’s really important to let your partner know how you’re feeling, what you’re comfortable doing and what you don’t want to do right now. Feeling comfortable and supported while you’re dealing with cancer is the most important part of a relationship, and if sex is not a priority for you during this time, it’s important to talk about this openly together. There are still plenty of ways to remain close and intimate with your partner without having sex.

 

However, whether you’re in a relationship or single, sexuality might be an important part of who you are and how you feel. If it’s important to you, it’s worth thinking about how you can 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. If you feel open to it, there are lots of things you can try to deal with different issues you might be having.

This guide will cover:

  • Body confidence
  • Getting in the mood
  • Fighting fatigue
  • Overcoming limited movement

What can you do about it?

Body confidence

Body confidence

Living with cancer can have a significant effect on your body image. You might be dealing with hair loss, scars, weight loss or weight gain from steroids, or surgery that has changed how you look. Going through a sudden change in appearance might make you feel less confident, and this can impact how you feel about having sex.

  • Being naked: If you don’t feel confident or comfortable being naked right now, that’s okay. Having sex doesn’t have to mean being naked - you could wear a camisole, a set of pyjamas, or really anything you feel comfortable in. Talking to your partner about it will help them to be sensitive to your feelings and support you in feeling more confident.
  • Lingerie: One way to get a little boost of confidence and feel “in the mood” might be to try some new lingerie. Though you might be spending more time in “comfy bras” if you’ve had surgery or have sore skin, there are also plenty of options for something a little more sexy - designed with cancer side effects in mind. Jasmine Stacey Lingerie, for example, is designed by a nurse and Crohn’s disease sufferer, and uses only the softest, highest quality materials. Their underwear is also ideal for anyone feeling self-conscious about their stomach area or with a stoma, with a range of flattering vintage-style high waisted briefs.
  • Cosmetics: If you’ve experienced hair loss due to chemotherapy or radiation, you may also have lost your eyebrows or eyelashes. Losing these little hairs can have a big impact on how you feel about your facial appearance, 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 might help you feel more confident and interested in sex - so it might be worth trying out something to fill out your eyebrows, or a soothing skin oil that smells delicious.
  • Exercise: Going through tiring treatments and experiencing changes to your appearance can leave you feeling “out of touch” with your own body. This can mean you just don’t feel like being intimate anymore, or are worried about how your partner will react to your new appearance. One way to get back in touch with your body is by doing some gentle exercise. Some light stretches, yoga, walking or even just dancing around to some music at home could help you to feel more in tune with your body and what makes it feel good - which could have a positive effect on your sex life.
  • Feeling clean: Lots of people living with cancer and its treatment say they struggle with feeling less clean, maybe because they’re recovering from surgery and dealing with scars, because they’re spending a lot of time in hospital, or perhaps they might be coming to terms with having a stoma or ostomy. These feelings are really common, and worth talking about with someone you trust. If you’re concerned about cleanliness “down there”, there are some great intimate cleansing products available that are specially formulated to maintain the natural balance of private areas without irritating sensitive skin. And if you have a stoma, there are some great odor neutralising sprays that might help to put your mind at ease.
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Getting in the mood

Getting in the mood

There are plenty of reasons you might have problems feeling aroused when going through cancer. Physical and emotional effects of treatment can cause you to feel that even when you do want to have sex, it just isn’t “happening” where it counts. For women, you might experience tense vaginal muscles or vaginal dryness, or difficulties reaching orgasm. And for men, you might have problems getting an erection, maintaining one, or ejaculating.

  • Foreplay and communication: Feeling relaxed is the key to having a pleasurable sexual experience. So if you’re feeling tense about how you look, how you feel or anything else going on in your relationship, it’s a good idea to talk about it with your partner so they can help you to feel supported and comfortable. Sex shouldn’t be all about penetration, either - especially if you’re feeling tense, lots of touching, kissing and just being close can help you feel closer to your partner.
  • Lubrication: Again, this is a tip that could help most people, but especially anyone who’s experiencing dryness or irritation in the vaginal area - a sensitive, non-irritant lubricant will be your new best friend. It’s available in a tube, or in small single-use pipettes that allow you to insert lubricant into the vagina before having sex, giving a more natural feeling.
  • Aphrodisiacs: You might think of oysters or powdered rhino horn, but an “aphrodisiac” can really be anything that gets you in the mood. Lighting relaxing scented candles, using essential oils that help you feel calm, or even trading massages with your partner using special non-irritant massage oils can all help to set the mood.
  • Talking to someone: Having sexual difficulties is an incredibly common problem that often just isn’t discussed due to embarrassment. When talking to each other hasn't done the trick, if you or your partner would like some advice on how to be intimate when you’ve been affected by cancer, talking to a counsellor or a sex therapist could be less awkward than you expect. Remember, they’ve heard it all (and probably much more) before. And they might be able to help you with the more physical aspects of sexual difficulties, such as erectile problems, by referring you to a doctor for medication or other treatments that can help.
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Fighting fatigue

Fighting fatigue

Chemotherapy, radiotherapy, other treatments and just having cancer itself is exhausting. You might be experiencing serious fatigue as a side effect of your treatment, and you might also have aches and pains. So there’s no wonder many people lose interest in sex - and that’s perfectly reasonable. However, if you are interested in exploring having sex, but just can’t get the energy together, here are a few suggestions that might help.

  • Energy boosts: Even at its most leisurely, sex can be a bit of a workout. Make sure you have enough energy by having a snack a little while before you want to have sex. Bonus points if you make it something that helps you feel sexy, like a delicious natural chocolate brownie, or some fresh, juicy fruit.
  • Shake up your schedule: It might sound obvious, but you can have sex at any time of day - not just before bed! If you’re taking medications that make you drowsy or fatigued at night, maybe you could try getting close to your partner in the morning instead? Or if you’re dealing with childcare issues, maybe there’s someone who can take the kids for a weekend? Talking to your partner about how you’re feeling and things that might help you is key. It might not feel as “spontaneous”, but figuring out a time when you’ll feel well enough to be interested in sex might be helpful for you both.
  • Feeling comfortable: If your body is exhausted or in pain, it doesn’t matter how sexy you’re feeling - you’re just too tired. Aches and pains are a common side effect of treatment, and if you need to rest, your partner should respect that. But 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, taking one about an hour before you have sex might help you to feel less tense or achy. You could also settle in for a cosy night together in bed with lots of cushions and use heat wraps and muscle rubs to relax sore muscles and soothe painful joints. ‚Äč
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Overcoming limited movement

Overcoming limited movement

Following surgery, you might have limited movement 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 still want to have sex, it’s good to make sure your partner knows what positions are painful for you and what makes you feel comfortable or not. Here are some suggestions for positions that might help you:

  • Breast surgery: If you’ve had a mastectomy you might feel hesitant about your partner seeing your scars, or it might be uncomfortable to have someone touch them. Positions facing away from your partner can help avoid this. Try the spoons position (lying on your side with your partner behind you), kneeling position (on all fours with your partner behind you), or standing position (perhaps leaning on a chair or something comfortable).
  • Hysterectomy: Vaginal sensation can be altered after a hysterectomy, and there may be scarring that makes things uncomfortable or painful. If you feel ready to have sex, you can minimise discomfort by going slowly and gently, and avoiding positions that thrust towards the back of the vagina. You might find face-to-face positions more comfortable. If you’re experiencing vaginal dryness as a result of undergoing menopause, it’s a good idea to use a skin-sensitive lubricant, to prevent irritation and enhance sensation for you and your partner.
  • Ostomy: Having a stoma and pouch might be something you feel self-conscious of in bed. If you’d prefer your partner not to see your stoma during sex, positions facing away from them are a good option (spoons, kneeling or standing are some good basics to try.) You could also try wearing high-waisted lingerie, which can help to keep stomas and pouches in place, such as a suspender belt or an elegant bodysuit.
  • Support cushions: This tip applies to absolutely everyone, whether you’re diagnosed with cancer or not! Use support pillows and cushions to get into a position that feels comfy for both of you. It takes the pressure off your muscles, and you can find angles and positions that you’d never be able to reach without support. Trust us, it makes a big difference!
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Last but not least...

Last but not least...

  • If you have any of your own tips and tricks for having a healthy sex life and staying intimate whilst dealing with cancer, we'd love to hear them! You can share them with us and our whole community on our Facebook or Twitter pages, or by emailing us at theteam@livebetterwith.com.