Cancer need not mean the end of your sex life, whether you’re heterosexual, gay, bisexual or transgender, and whether you’re in a relationship or single.
Nearly all of the sexual problems people have because of cancer are variable and can be temporary. For example, loss of control, loss of part of your body, grieving and anger can all be healed, or resolved to an extent, given the opportunity and time. Support from people around you can be very helpful.
Communication and information
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Communication is essential for healthy sexuality in a relationship. You can use this section to find out more about possible side effects of cancer and its treatment, so that you can prepare yourself for changes. You, and your partner if you have one, can consider how to manage this aspect of your life. You might want to gather more information or resources to help you feel in control of maintaining good sexual self-esteem while having treatment.
Being open to change encourages healthy sexuality. You may need to develop a whole new style of openness and flexibility. It might be, for example, that you have always taken the lead in sex and this may have to change now. It could be that your favourite sexual positions are no longer comfortable, even just for a time. You may have seen sex as being entirely about intercourse. But if penetrative sex is impossible for some reason you may want to start exploring other ways to have and give sexual pleasure.
Acknowledging your own needs and those of your partner is essential for healthy sexuality within couples. Remember that it’s not just the person with cancer who will be affected. It can be more upsetting to watch someone you care for undergoing surgery and other treatments than to go through it all yourself.
Sometimes it’s the partner of the person with cancer who has a problem about sex.
Your partner may feel afraid to touch you for fear of hurting you. Some people incorrectly believe they might catch the cancer through sexual contact. Your partner may lose desire as a direct result of the changes brought about in you. They may also feel rejected if they don’t realise that your reduced sexual desire is due to the cancer or its emotional effects.
It’s also important to acknowledge that your partner’s sex drive may not be reduced. Sometimes it can even increase, if intimate touch helps to reassure them in times of stress. It may be important to talk through with your partner other ways they can meet their sexual needs, such as masturbation. This can help to reduce any frustration resulting from reduced sexual contact. This may not be what you would ideally want, but it can be a useful way for both of you to meet your needs.
Emotional intimacy may increase through greater communication, even when sex is not possible.
Starting again and relearning about sensual bodily pleasures may be important for anyone who has had a break in sexual contact. When rebuilding intimacy, you may need to start very slowly and gently. Try caressing without a goal of orgasm or penetration. Remember that there are many loving and erotic activities other than intercourse.
Early on, and perhaps even during treatment, you can keep love alive by cuddling and holding one another. Learning to massage one another can be supportive.
A person with cancer doesn’t have to give up sexual contact completely. However, some people may find that they don’t miss sexual contact and that not having sex isn’t a problem for them.
A healthy sexual self-esteem is about being true to ourselves. We’re free to make choices about how we express our feelings, and to decide which sexual behaviour suits us and how, or if, we then share ourselves with others.
When you’ve been through an experience of cancer, you may never be the same again. Your view of your life, your relationships, your job and your family may all change. Managing all this change can be difficult to deal with, but you can use this challenge to build your relationships.
Many people say they:
become more honest with their partner
stop putting off things that they want to do, sexually or otherwise
start to be more realistic about life in general
take up new interests that they’d been putting off for years.
The idea of getting back to normal may mean a whole rethink of your sex life. This might not be easy. If you find that things aren’t going well, look for help sooner rather than later.
If you’ve had problems for a while, remember that sex therapists and counsellors are used to helping couples who have let matters drift, slowly getting worse, so that by the time they get help the relationship may have serious problems.