With the new day comes new strength and new thoughts

- Eleanor Roosevelt

Sexuality after cancer

Sexuality is about the way people experience and express themselves sexually. This involves their physical makeup, biological makeup, social, emotional and spiritual feelings and behaviours. It also encompasses how you feel as a man, as a woman or as a non-binary.

Body Image and Self Esteem

Through treatment, it’s possible that how your body looks will change. Things like weight change, scars, hair loss and regrowth serve as a reminder of what your body has been through. This can make some patients feel strong, but it can remind others of a very difficult time. Your confidence in your body can also be affected. You may not feel the same way about how you look or be open to other people’s opinions of your new body or the changes you are experiencing.

After cancer treatment, sex could be one of the last things on your mind, or it could be something your dreading thinking about. Not everyone will experience a change in how they feel about sex, but if you do, know that you are not alone. Change in libido, or your confidence in how your body looks after cancer treatment is a common side effect.

Side effects that occur after treatment that can affect your desire for sex are:

Change in your body or appearance

  • Fatigue
  • Anxiety
  • Discomfort of pain
  • Altered body – mastectomy, hair loss, weight gain, weight loss, erectile dysfunction, incontinence

These kinds of side effects can affect the way you feel and how you feel about sex.  The relationship between you and your partner throughout treatment and even in the months/ years after treatment can be affected. You may be a single person looking to have a relationship during this phase, so it is very important to talk to your specialist or Nurse looking after you so that they can refer you for the appropriate care or support you may need at any point in time before, during or after your treatment.


Tips on how to cope:

  • Be Kind to Yourself: Your body has been through a lot. Scars and changes in its appearance are a reminder of how strong your body can be and how it recovers.
  • Give yourself time: Acceptance is rarely easy. Give yourself and your partner time to acclimatise to the new you. You are entitled to grieve after surgery and treatment you are allowed to take time to get used to your new normal.
  • Keep your routine: Sticking to your own beauty/self-care routine can be comforting in times of change. Looking after your appearance through clothes, wigs or anything that makes you feel comfortable can help you feel better.
  • Speak up: Be open about any anxiety you are having around your appearance and any concerns you’re having surrounding intimacy and allow your partner to do the same.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help: If you feel that you need extra support, contact your GP or the oncology team looking after you. They can advise you on specialist counselling, therapy and drug treatments to help you get back to feeling like yourself.


Relationship Issues:

After treatment, beginning or renewing a sexual relationship may be something you feel anxious about. You may be worried that your partner will make comparisons to how your body used to look. If you are beginning a new relationship, you may be concerned about how your partner will react to your body.

Not everyone experiences intimacy issues in the same way. But there are some general ways to help ease yourself back into a healthy sexual relationship. Remember that sex is a journey which can begin with desire and arousal before there is any physical contact whatsoever.

  • Acknowledge that there is no perfect time: Just like a cancer journey, everyone’s relationship is different. Recognise that there is no perfect time to start having sex again and take it at your own pace.
  • Adapt: Things may not be the exact same after treatment. Learn what works for you and be open and honest with your partner about how you are feeling and allow them to do the same.
  • Sex Isn’t Everything: Sex isn’t the only way you can experience intimacy with your partner. Things like holding hands, kissing and cuddling can be enough to fulfil you if the effects of your treatment are lingering. Explain this to your partner and accept the fact that you may need time to get back to the way you were before treatment.
  • If you feel comfortable with masturbation, this may give you the reassurance that you can still enjoy sex or you may want to stimulate your partner and help them reach orgasm, even if you don’t want to yourself.

From Your Partner’s Perspective:

Remember that you are not the only one going through a change. He or she will also need time to adjust to your diagnosis and treatment, as well as the changes you experience.

Reactions to you sexually will depend on their reaction to your diagnosis. Reactions like :

Your partner will need time to accept your illness

  • He or she may be overly protective and make a fuss over you to save you from straining yourself.
  • They may not mention or initiate sex for fear of hurting you or upsetting you.

If your partner is finding it difficult getting used to your new situation, this can be even more stressful for you. It’s possible that both of you are assuming how each other is feeling without actually speaking to one another. Both assumptions made could be entirely wrong and by expressing how you feel, you can save yourself a lot of heartache.


The Future:

Coping with the emotional and physical destress of cancer treatment doesn’t end when your treatment does. Speaking openly and honestly about your feelings, or going to professional sex therapists could help you in your intimate relationship. Before now, you may not have given your sexuality too much thought, but now you know exactly what it means to you. As a result, you may be more able to enjoy and be fulfilled in your sexual relationships.


Useful Resources:

ACCORD: Catholic Marriage Care Services – www.accord.ie

Sexual Advice Association – www.sexualadviceassociation.co.uk

Relationships Ireland – www.relationshipsireland.com

College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists- https://www.cosrt.org.uk/

For support and information for those affected by Gynaecological cancer and their families, visit ThisIsGo.ie by clicking here.