January 25, 2007

How cancer can affect your sexuality and sex life

This page has information how cancer can affect your sex life and how you feel about your sexuality. You can scroll down the page to read all the information here. Or use these links to take you straight to sections on

  • Does cancer always affect your sexuality and sex life?
  • How cancer and treatment can affect your sex life
  • How practical matters can affect your sex life
  • Loss of confidence and self esteem
  • Changes in your ‘body image’
  • Emotional and psychological changes
  • What if I don’t have a partner?
  • Getting help and support

Does having cancer always affect your sexuality and sex life?

Not everyone who has cancer will have changes in sexual desire or how they feel about themselves sexually. You may not notice any changes at all. Others lose interest in sex and feel very tired. But you may feel that the changes cancer has caused to your body image affect the way you feel about yourself and having sex. At the other end of the scale, some people say that they want to make love more than usual. If you are in a relationship, a crisis can sometimes bring couples very close together.

Because we’re all so different and have different sexual needs, it’s impossible to say exactly how cancer will affect each person’s sexuality and sex life. Some types of cancers and their treatments affect your ability or desire to have sex more than others. If you are already in a loving relationship your concerns may be different than for someone who is single.

If your feelings about your body and having sex do change during your cancer treatment, it doesn’t mean that it will last forever. If you are able to talk to your partner, doctor or nurses about your worries it can help to lessen them. And they may be able to suggest ways to help improve any problems you’re having. There is information about talking about sexuality and sex life in this section of CancerHelp UK.

How cancer and treatment can affect your sex life

Having cancer or its treatment can cause
  • Sickness
  • Tiredness (fatigue)
  • Irritability
  • Low mood or depression
  • Anxiety or tension
  • Pain
  • Bowel problems such as diarrhoea
  • Mouth problems
  • Breathing problems
  • Changes in your sex hormones
If you have any of these side effects or feelings you may not feel like having sex. Some people say that they feel less attractive because of them. You may not have the energy to take as much interest in your clothes, hair or make up as you did before.

If you’re the partner of someone in this situation, you may be very worried about your loved one seeming so low. This is understandable. But most people come out of this phase once their treatment is over, or their symptoms are better controlled.

If you have a lot of pain because of your cancer it can help to plan for any sexual activity with your partner. For example, by taking painkillers 30 to 60 minutes beforehand.

Tiredness (fatigue), however, can last a long time after your cancer treatment has finished. Many people feel stronger within a couple of months of their treatment. But some people feel washed out for as long as a year, particularly if they have had intensive chemotherapy. If you are feeling very tired you may not feel like having sex.

But simply a touch can help you feel cared for and reduce any anxiety and depression you may be feeling. So if you have a partner, concentrate on showing your feelings for one another in other ways by
  • Enjoying being close to each other
  • Touching and stroking
  • Kissing
  • Massaging
  • Talking
  • Holding hands
It may help to know that even if you don’t feel like having sex, a caring partner may still be able to arouse you and help you enjoy sexual activity.

It is important that you both agree on what is acceptable to each of you. Do talk to each other about your worries and fears. Don't be afraid to ask each other what is OK and what is not. While talking about sex can be difficult, checking out each other's feelings and what they want can be very reassuring.

How practical matters can affect your sex life

Practical matters can include worries about your job and money. It can also mean any problems you may have getting day to day jobs done, such as picking children up from school and doing the shopping. If these things are not flowing well in life, then it can be very stressful.

If your illness means you have to stop work, you still need a regular income to pay all the usual bills and any additional ones relating to your illness. If you have to deal with the stress of not having enough money, it can cause a lot of conflict within relationships and intimacy can suffer.

Cancer symptoms and treatment side effects can sometimes make it very difficult to keep up your normal daily routine, especially if you have children. At times you may have to organise other people to look after your children. You may have concerns about how your cancer is affecting your children and find it difficult to talk to your children about your illness. Or you may have to ask close friends and family to help out with doing your shopping and cooking.

Whatever practical matters you have to deal with, if they are causing you a lot of concern, it can mean that you just don’t have the energy or desire to be intimate with a partner. It may all just feel too overwhelming to try and relax and enjoy any sexual activity. But it’s very important to try and talk to your partner about your concerns and find ways to sort through any problems you may have.

Try to find a quiet time together where you can talk openly and honestly about your worries. Listen to each other and then try to find solutions to your problems. Even though it may be difficult to stay calm and talk about problems in a rational manner, you may be surprised at how much it helps. And it may even bring you closer together.

There is a lot more information about getting help and ways to deal with financial matters in the living with cancer section of CancerHelp UK.

Loss of confidence and self esteem

Cancer and its treatment can alter the way you feel about yourself (your self esteem). This may be because of physical changes to your body or it may be less obvious than that.

The intense emotions that having cancer can bring can also have a big effect on your self esteem. You may feel that you have lost some of your independence and can no longer do things that you used to enjoy.

You may feel so tired and worried that activities you used to find easy now seem too difficult to do. Your future plans may have to be put on hold. You may begin to feel like you have no control over your life. All these things can make you feel less confident about who you are and what you do. Having confidence and a healthy self esteem are very important to us all. They play a big part in our sexuality and sex life.

Self esteem also means self satisfaction, self respect and self worth. Many factors can affect these feelings including an illness such as cancer that threatens your physical health. Having low or decreased self esteem can affect your quality of life. It can cause long term problems such as depression and anxiety. If you feel depressed or anxious you are much less likely to feel like being intimate and sexual.

It can be very difficult to boost your self esteem when you feel so low. But there are things that you can do. The most important thing is to talk to someone about how you are feeling. This can be a close relative or friend or your doctor or nurses. Just off loading your feelings can help lessen the burden. Give yourself some time to come to terms with all you’ve been through. It will take time to increase your confidence and self esteem again. But it is possible.

If you’d like to talk to someone other than friends and family, look in our help and support section for counselling organisations. To find out more about counselling look in What is Counselling?.

Changes in 'body image'
Cancer treatment can also change how you see yourself in more dramatic ways. Changes in how you feel about your body may not directly affect your ability to have sex. But they can definitely make you feel less sexual. Such changes might be
  • Hair loss from radiotherapy or chemotherapy
  • Having a colostomy or urostomy (a bag for bowel movements or passing urine)
  • Having a breast removed (mastectomy)
  • Having your womb removed (hysterectomy)
  • Having a testicle removed
  • Having vaginal surgery
  • Having vulval surgery
  • Having your cervix removed
  • Having surgery for bladder cancer
  • Having surgery for penis cancer
  • Changes in your appearance from head and neck cancer
  • Having scars from any surgery
  • Losing a lot of weight
  • Gaining weight from taking drugs such as steroids
The links above will take you to information on ways to cope with your sex life after these changes that cancer may bring.

Some of these changes can be temporary. Your hair will grow back after chemotherapy. You may put on weight when taking steroids, but lose it again when your treatment is finished. So, it may only be a matter of time before you feel more back to normal.

Some people believe that their past sex life has helped cause their cancer. This sort of worry or guilt can make future sexual activity difficult. Many people with worries like these find it helpful to talk to someone about their fears.

Some people experience a feeling of being 'unclean' after treatment. Again, it is important to acknowledge how powerful these feelings can be. It may be helpful to talk your fears through with a sympathetic person who can reassure you.

If you would like to talk to someone outside your own friends and family, look in our help and support section for counselling organisations. To find out more about counselling look in What is Counselling?.

If your treatment effects are more permanent, such as having a breast removed or having a permanent colostomy formed, you will have to come to terms with the changes to your body. Some people find this more difficult than others, though it may just take time. It may help to talk to others who have been through the same thing. Or it may help to find a sympathetic counsellor who can help you explore your feelings in more depth.

It may sound like a cliché, but wearing something attractive in bed to hide scars or a colostomy bag can help. Especially at first while you both get used to the changes in your body.

Emotional and psychological changes

Cancer doesn't just change you physically. It can cause many different emotions such as fear, depression and anger. These intense feelings may also affect how you feel about sex and about yourself. You might find that you look at the world differently after having cancer. Some people really do find that they can use cancer as a new beginning. However your outlook on life changes, you and those close to you will need time to get used to it. There is more about the emotions associated with having cancer in the living with cancer section of CancerHelp UK.

What if I don't have a partner?

If you’re single, you still need to feel sexual and attractive to others. This means first getting used to the changes yourself. It can be more difficult when you don't have someone close to support you and reassure you. Try talking to a close friend or family member who can help you deal with the changes that cancer and its treatment have caused. Talk to them and explain how you feel. There is more information on being single, sexuality and cancer in this section of CancerHelp UK.

What about getting help?

You will probably find that any problems you have with sex after cancer will get better with time and a little patience. But some people need a bit of help.

Remember - problems with sex are very common. They just aren't talked about much.

Talking about sex is difficult and can be very embarrassing. It often needs a lot of courage to bring the subject up. Sometimes your questions can be answered there and then. If not, and you want more help, then ask your cancer doctor, nurse or GP about finding a counsellor or therapist. There is more information in our What is Counselling? section.

Talking to a counsellor or seeing a sex therapist can help you to find ways of overcoming difficulties. You can see a sex therapist if you are single. If in a relationship, you can go alone or with your partner. It may be better to talk things through as a couple, if you can.

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