The female body and sex

The female sex organs are both inside (womb, cervix and ovaries) and outside the body (vulva). The breasts, nipples and other areas of the body may also be sensitive to touch.

When you feel sexually aroused, your body goes through different stages. This may start with feeling turned on and build up to a sexual climax (orgasm). Cancer or its treatment can cause physical and emotional changes that affect your desire for sex (your sex drive). This can make it harder to orgasm.

Changes in the level of sex hormones in your body can cause:

  • a lower sex drive
  • tiredness
  • vaginal dryness
  • urinary problems.

Your doctor or specialist nurse can advise you on different ways of coping with these physical changes.

Sex drive is very closely linked to how we feel. If you are anxious or depressed due to cancer, you may have difficulty feeling sexually aroused. It may help to talk to someone about these difficult feelings.

The female body

A woman’s reproductive organs are mostly inside her body. They include the womb (uterus), the cervix (the neck of the womb), the fallopian tubes and the ovaries.

The female internal sex organs
The female internal sex organs

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Outside a woman’s body is the area of skin called the vulva. This is made up of all the visible sex organs. It consists of two outer lips (the labia majora), which are covered in pubic hair and surround two inner lips (the labia minora).

At the front of the vulva is the clitoris. This is a small structure that helps women reach a sexual climax (orgasm). Just behind the clitoris is the outlet for urine (the urethra), and just behind this is the vaginal opening (birth canal). Further back still is the opening to the back passage (anus). This is close to the vulva but not part of it. The area of skin between the vulva and the anus is called the perineum.

The vulva
The vulva

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Other sexual areas include the breasts and nipples, which change in hardness and sensitivity when touched. You will have other sensitive areas on your body that respond to touch, such as the back of your neck, the backs of your knees, your buttocks and inner thighs. The sensitivity of these erogenous zones varies from woman to woman.

Cancer, relationships and sexuality

Amanda talks about her cancer diagnosis and the impact it had on her relationship and life.

About our cancer information videos

Cancer, relationships and sexuality

Amanda talks about her cancer diagnosis and the impact it had on her relationship and life.

About our cancer information videos


Sexual desire (sex drive)

Sexual desire describes our interest in sex. Everyone’s desire for sex is different. It varies depending on events going on in your life, your relationships, your feelings and changes in your body. For example, you may find your desire for sex is low if you are stressed, tired or unhappy. Most women find their desire changes throughout the menstrual cycle, when they are pregnant or breast-feeding, and after the menopause.

Stages of sexual arousal

  • Excitement or arousal is the awakening of sexual feelings, when you feel ‘turned on’ and ready for sex. These feelings can be produced by simply seeing someone you’re attracted to, thinking about sex, or touching or being touched by a partner. Arousal may or may not lead to orgasm.
  • Plateau is the phase where your body maintains a heightened state of arousal. Your body is very sensitive during this phase.
  • Orgasm is the sexual climax – the feelings of intense pleasure that happen as areas of your body go into a series of rhythmic contractions. Some women can feel their womb contract during orgasm.
  • Resolution is the phase after sexual arousal and orgasm. This is when the sexual changes in the body go back to normal. Many women can be aroused to orgasm again straight away. As women get older, they usually lose the ability to become sexually excited repeatedly.

Physical arousal, plateau and orgasm will only happen if the body has a good blood supply, the nerves to the pelvic area are working well and the balance of hormones in the body is right.


Hormones

Hormones are substances that occur naturally in the body. They act as chemical messengers, which influence the growth and activity of cells. Hormones are produced by the endocrine system, which is made up of several organs and glands.

The female sex hormones oestrogen and progesterone are mostly produced by the ovaries. The ovaries and adrenal gland also make a small amount of the male sex hormone testosterone, which can be a factor in your sex drive.

Changes in the levels of sex hormones in your body can cause physical symptoms, such as:

  • a loss of sex drive
  • tiredness
  • vaginal dryness
  • urinary problems.


Emotional effects on sexual desire and sex drive

Desire and sex drive make us act in a certain way when we’re sexually aroused. Sexual desire isn’t fixed – it changes over the years. Lots of things can reduce sexual desire, including:

  • tiredness
  • stress
  • mood changes
  • anxiety
  • feeling unhappy about your body
  • relationship problems
  • traumatic sexual experiences in the past
  • excessive drug or alcohol use
  • boredom with your sexual routine.

Desire for sex is greatly affected by your state of mind. If you’re depressed, anxious or afraid about your cancer, its treatment or your relationship, you may find it more difficult to be sexually aroused. Your sexuality and sex drive will probably change at different times during your diagnosis and treatment, whether you are single or in a relationship.

In many relationships, one partner is more interested in sex than the other. Cancer can exaggerate this. If one partner’s level of desire changes, this can be upsetting when there’s the added complication of cancer.

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