Effects of cancer and its treatment on your sex life
You may worry that cancer, and any damage to your reproductive system, might affect your ability to have sexual feelings and to enjoy sex, either now or in the future. The good news is that having had cancer won’t automatically affect your sex life.
It’s not common for cancer or its treatment to make it physically difficult to have sex, but it does happen occasionally. Even if the cancer or its treatment has damaged your reproductive system, you can usually still enjoy sex and relationships.
Cancer and its treatment can affect people both physically and emotionally. It’s important to remember that not everyone is affected. It’s different for everyone, and it can also change over time. It can be hard to think about ways of adapting to any changes to your body, but it can also be fun to learn about enjoying your sex life in new ways.
Cancer or its treatment may affect:
your physical ability to have sex
your body image (how you feel about the way you look)
other things going on in your life, such as whether you get back into work or studying.
The links between all these areas are important. If there’s a problem in one, it might have an impact on the others. In the same way, if there’s an improvement in one area, it can help improve all the others. If you’ve had treatment recently, it’s important to give yourself plenty of time to recover.
There are often ways of dealing with the physical effects of treatment on your sex life, and if you want to talk to someone about it there’s lots of expert information and support available.
It can be helpful to know about the different sex organs. There are lots of different names for them, but we will use the same names throughout our info.
Some physical effects on men and women
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Some things can affect both men and women:
Your interest in sex may be lowered if the levels of the sex hormones (testosterone or oestrogen) in your body have been reduced by your treatment.
Many young people with cancer say that they feel ‘washed out’ and as though they have no energy for many months or even longer. If this happens to you, you may lose interest in sex, feel unattractive or worry that you’ll never be able to be sexually active.
Loss of sexual interest and erection difficulties are often not just caused by physical changes, but can be affected by the emotional upset and raised anxiety levels that cancer and its treatments can have on you.
If you’re in pain for any reason, this can make having sex more difficult.
If you’ve had treatment for bone or muscle tumours in your limbs or back, it can sometimes be more difficult to get into a position to have sex.
What can help?
Hormone levels can usually be kept almost normal by taking hormone tablets, using skin patches, applying gel to the skin or having injections. Hormone replacement is important for both men and women - not only for maintaining sex drive but to help keep the bones strong.
You might be put off having sex because you’re in pain or afraid that it might be painful. If this is the case for you, it’s worth checking with your doctor or asking for a referral to a specialist counsellor, to find out if there’s anything that can get rid of or reduce the pain. You can also experiment with sexual positions that may be more comfortable for you.
Perhaps the most important thing to realise is that you’re going through the same problems as many other young people being treated for cancer, and that getting help may solve or reduce them.
If things aren’t going well with your sex life, it’s a good idea to get some help, rather than leaving it. It can be difficult to talk about sex, but doctors and specialist nurses are used to dealing with intimate problems. They can often give you advice and support, or refer you to a sex therapist or counsellor for more specialist help.
How long do physical side effects last?
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How long the side effects last depends on which parts of your body, if any, have been affected:
Nerve damage to the sex organs is long-term in most people.
Effects on male hormone levels may be temporary, but can sometimes be permanent.
In women, low levels of hormones can often go back to normal if they’re caused by chemotherapy, but this may take several months or perhaps as long as a few years. However, after high-dose chemotherapy, surgery, radiotherapy or pituitary gland damage, the effects may be long-lasting.
In most people, tiredness and a lack of energy gradually become less of a problem after a while, although this can take months or sometimes years.
Common questions about sexuality
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Can I pass the cancer on to my partner through having sex?
No, cancer is not passed on through sex.
Will having sex make the cancer more likely to come back?
No, having sex has no effect on the chances of your cancer coming back.
Does my sexual orientation make any difference?
Many of the sexual issues that affect heterosexual (‘straight’) people after being treated for cancer also affect people who are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered. However, some people find it hard to ask for professional advice if they’re still coming to terms with their sexual orientation. You may also worry that healthcare staff will disapprove. If you find it difficult to talk to the professionals you know, there are advice lines that can put you in touch with people who can help.
We have more information about sexuality and cancer, which is written for people of all ages, not just teens and young adults.