Sexuality, intimacy and body changes
Changes to your body caused by cancer or its treatment, can make you feel less masculine or feminine.
Treatment may affect your ability to have sex because it can change how your sexual organs work. It can also change how you feel about sex. You may worry that sex will be painful, impossible or embarrassing.
You may have no desire for sex. This may leave you feeling sexually unattractive and can also affect your self-esteem and self-confidence. You may feel you want to withdraw from your partner. Some people avoid having sex.
Some people also worry that they may lose their husband, wife or partner if they can’t fulfil their sexual needs. Talking to your partner about sex can be difficult. But discussing your fears and worries can help you both feel more comfortable with each other. Your partner may have concerns as well.
Being open with each other can often have a positive effect on a relationship and intimacy. If having sex is a worry, it may help to agree to avoid it for a while. This can take the pressure off and allow you to concentrate on rebuilding intimacy. For example, you can focus on spending time together and going out, holding hands or kissing and cuddling.
When both of you feel ready, you can move on to caressing non-intimate areas, then intimate areas and finally, sexual intercourse.
If you’re not in an intimate relationship with someone, the thought of starting one may seem daunting or impossible. Or you may worry about what or when to tell a new partner about body changes. We often make assumptions about what others think or feel about us and fear rejection.
Sexuality can be difficult to talk about for most people, but healthcare professionals, such as nurse specialists, can give you help and advice. Your healthcare team can also refer you to a sexual health specialist if that would help. These are experts in dealing with issues around intimacy and relationships, and they can give you confidential advice and practical help.
Our sections about sexuality, and cancer, you and your partner have further advice on how to deal with the physical and emotional changes that can affect your sexuality and intimacy. You may also find it helpful to look at our section on Taking control.
There are a number of ways of dealing with concerns about relationships.
Tanya's experience of body changes and cancer
Tanya was diagnosed with cervical cancer and had to have a hysterectomy (removal of the womb) as part of her treatment. This left her feeling like less of a woman. Tanya had two children but was concerned that she could no longer have children but her partner still could. This made her feel that the balance in their relationship had changed.
Tanya spoke about her concerns with her healthcare team. They helped her to question her thoughts to see if there was another way of looking at things. At first, Tanya was helped by looking at all aspects of her femininity. She involved her partner in this process. This led to them understanding that while Tanya thought that being able to have children was an important part of being a woman, this was low down on her partner’s list of what makes her an attractive woman.
Watch Amanda's story of how treatment for breast cancer affected her life.