Intimacy & Cancer

Macmillan Cancer Support

Cancer and cancer treatment can affect many areas of sexual well-being. They may cause changes that are:

  • physical – you may have side effects or symptoms that change how your body works or looks
  • emotional – you may be dealing with stress, worry or other difficult feelings
  • practical – your usual routines or roles may change.

These areas are often linked. If there is a change in one area, it may affect another. Many changes caused by cancer treatment are temporary and usually get better after treatment. As you recover, you may find your sex life goes back to the way it was. Sometimes people might have to adjust to changes that last longer or that may be permanent.

There can be ways to improve your sexual well-being and to manage any problems. But sometimes this gets forgotten because there are other things to cope with when you have cancer. It may also be ignored because you or your healthcare team feel embarrassed or worried when talking about sex.

Some people worry about whether it is safe to have sex after being diagnosed with cancer. It is important to remember that sexual touching, penetration or close physical contact:

  • cannot pass cancer on to a partner
  • will not affect the cancer
  • does not make cancer more likely to come back.

If you feel like having sex then it is usually safe to do so. And some people find they enjoy sex and want to keep their sex life as normal as possible. Your cancer doctor or nurse will tell you if you need to make changes to your sex life because of a treatment.

For example:

  • You may have had surgery or radiotherapy to the pelvic area – Your body may need time to heal properly before you receive vaginal or anal sex.
  • You may have had certain types of internal radiotherapy called seed brachytherapy or radioisotope therapy – You may be advised to avoid close physical contact for a short time. This is to protect partners from radiation.
  • You may have had high-dose chemotherapy or a stem cell transplant – You will be advised not to have close physical contact with anyone for a while. This is to protect you from infection. Your cancer doctor or specialist nurse will explain more about this.

Who can help if cancer affects your sex life

If your sexual well-being is affected before, during or after cancer treatment, this does not mean your sex life is over. There may be advice, support or treatments that can help.

Talk to your GP, cancer doctor or specialist nurse or your local sexual health service. They may offer advice or treatments that can help you. Or they may suggest that you see someone else if you need more help.

Sometimes it helps to talk about sexual problems. Your healthcare team may arrange for you to talk to a counsellor, psychologist, psychiatrist or sex therapist. These professionals all work in slightly different ways. But they can all help you understand and cope with your feelings or any changes.

You can often get support with sexual problems through the NHS. But some services, such as seeing a sexual therapist may only available privately or through another organisation. Your healthcare team can explain what is available in your area. The College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists have a list of professional therapists on their website. 

Talking about sex with your healthcare team

It can be difficult to start a conversation about sex with someone from your healthcare team. Some people feel embarrassed or uncomfortable talking about something so personal. But it is important to get the right information when you need it. You can ask your healthcare team about anything before, during or after cancer treatment.

A health professional may not ask about your sexual well-being unless they know you want to talk about it. Tell them if you have questions or are worried about anything. They will understand that these questions are important to you. Even if you feel embarrassed, you should still ask for information and support. Most health professionals are used to having these conversations.

Tips for talking

You may find it helpful to prepare before you talk to a health professional. Here are some tips:

  • Think about who you want to talk to. Is there someone in your healthcare team you feel more comfortable with?
  • Think about what information you want. For example, you may want to know why you have lost interest in sex since starting treatment. Will this improve? What might help?
  • Write down the questions you want to ask.
  • Practice what you want to say.
  • At the start of your appointment, tell the health professional you would like some time to ask questions.
  • Do not worry about using the right medical words about sex or your body. Use the words you understand.
  • If something is not clear, ask the health professional to explain again.

Coping with your feelings about cancer and sex

Your thoughts and feelings have a powerful effect on your sexual well-being. Being diagnosed with cancer can cause strong emotions.

How you feel about yourself sexually may also change if you:

  • are feeling less in control
  • feel weak or tired
  • feel your role has changed at home or work
  • have changes to how your body looks or works.

Whatever feelings you have, it can help to talk to someone. You may not need advice. It is often helpful to have someone just listen.

Try to find someone that you trust and feel comfortable talking to. This could be a partner, a family member, a friend or a professional (GP, cancer doctor or specialist nurse).

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