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Even if you think it will be embarrassing or difficult, it's important to try and talk about any sexual problems the cancer or its treatment| are causing.
Our sex lives are usually private and not openly discussed with strangers. Many people find it difficult to talk about very personal and intimate issues. Because of this, you may feel that talking about sex will be embarrassing for you, your partner (if you have one) and any healthcare professionals you talk to. This doesn’t have to be the case. Sex is an important part of most people’s lives. It brings pleasure and closeness, and helps us define who we are. There are things that can help with most problems, but you may never find out about them if you keep the issues to yourself.
If you’re lesbian, gay or bisexual you may find it more difficult to discuss your sex life with strangers or healthcare professionals. You may not be comfortable talking about your sexuality because you aren’t ‘out’ to everyone, or you may fear that people you don’t know well will be prejudiced towards you.
Some people feel that because of their religious, cultural or personal beliefs, it’s wrong to discuss their sexual needs with someone else. It’s important to find someone who you feel comfortable talking to and who will respect your beliefs.
If you feel uncomfortable talking to your doctor or nurses, for whatever reason, you could contact one of the organisations| listed on our database for support and advice. Many of these have confidential helplines.
It can be difficult to find the right words to use, and this can often put people off starting a conversation about sexuality. When talking about sexual areas of our bodies, we sometimes use slang words and unclear expressions. This can sometimes lead to confusion and misunderstanding. The healthcare professionals looking after you will be able to talk to you using the words and expressions you’re used to. They will help you find a common language and make sure you’re both talking about the same things so that you get the right help and support that you need.
Embarrassment can make us feel awkward and stop us saying what we want to. One way to reduce this might be to write down all your questions in advance. You could then show the list to someone who may be able to give you answers.
It can sometimes be difficult to talk to a partner about sexual problems. You may feel embarrassed and not want to upset them. Your doctor or nurse can give you support and help with discussing these difficult issues.
Although it can often be difficult to bring up the subject of sexuality when you talk to your doctor or specialist nurse, most healthcare professionals are used to dealing with this subject. They should be able to answer your questions and help you get support, so try not to feel too embarrassed.
Before you see the doctor or nurse, it might help to think about how you could bring up the subject. You could practise a couple of things to say until you feel comfortable saying them.
Healthcare professionals may not think to ask you whether the cancer or its treatment are affecting your sexuality. However, they will be happy to help, and they can refer you for counselling or specialist treatment if they can’t answer your questions.
If you don’t want to talk to anyone face to face, there are many confidential helplines with staff who can help you. Sometimes the anonymity of a helpline can help you to talk about things you find difficult to discuss in person. Sexuality is an important part of many people’s lives and it can be very reassuring to discuss any problems that you have.
Our experienced cancer information specialists| can also provide information. They will talk to you confidentially and listen to your concerns.
People are sometimes concerned about seeking help from a psychological therapist. They worry that they will be labelled in some way. Asking for help with a sexual problem can be even more difficult because they think they will be thought of as someone who’s ‘obsessed with sex’. It’s important to remember that sex is a normal part of most people’s lives and that asking for help with a sexual problem is no different to asking for help with any other health concern.
Some people think that all sexual problems are physical and that talking about how they’re feeling won’t help. Although many medical conditions can affect our sex lives, this isn’t always the case. Sex therapy can also help you adjust to any physical changes and help you explore different ways of getting sexual satisfaction.
The therapist will do an assessment of the problem by asking lots of questions and by getting you to explain what’s wrong. If there are any questions you don’t feel comfortable with, you don’t have to answer them. It can sometimes take a couple of sessions of therapy before you feel happy enough to openly talk about your feelings and concerns. Unless you have a physical problem, the therapist is unlikely to ask you to take your clothes off and won’t need to examine your body.
A sex therapist can’t fix all your problems, but will help you, and your partner if you have one, explore the issues and work out ways for you to get what you want. The therapist may suggest some exercises to help you overcome the problem - you don’t have to follow their advice if you don’t want to or if you feel uncomfortable.
Some sex and relationship therapists also have medical or nursing qualifications. If you have a physical problem that’s affecting your sex life, they’ll be able to give you advice about it. If not, they’ll refer you to your GP or specialist.
Like all counselling and therapy, sex and relationship therapy is confidential. The therapist won’t discuss your sessions with anyone else unless they’re concerned that there’s a risk you might harm yourself or someone else.
Your cancer doctor, specialist nurse or GP can refer you to a sex and relationship therapist. You can also find a therapist privately, there are some listed on our organisation| database.
Content last reviewed: 1 October 2011
Next planned review: 2013
For answers, support or just a chat, call the Macmillan Support Line free (Monday to Friday, 9am-8pm)
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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