Not X-Rated- Sexuality and Cancer Treatment

Most people feel embarrassed asking their doctor about the effects cancer treatment may have on their sex life. Some may not even share how they feel with their sex partner.  The reality is that emotional and physical intimacy is an important part of life — and cancer treatment can impact both men and women, and both patients and their partners.

Depending on the type of cancer and the type of treatment, sexual side effects may be temporary or long term. It’s common for people to worry if it’s safe to be intimate during treatment, and to feel self-conscious about the change in body image that can result from surgery, chemotherapy or radiation.

Wondering if the sex will be the same during or after treatment is also common. For example, the man’s ability to get and keep an erection can change as the result of treatment. For women, vaginal dryness, loss of sensation and painful intercourse can diminish the desire for sex. Sexual problems can also be related to the emotions surrounding cancer, including anxiety, depression, or the potential loss of fertility.

Ask your doctor if it is OK to have sex during or after treatment. The good news is sex is usually safe for the person with cancer and their partner. Cancer cannot be caught from another person, and sex with someone who is undergoing radiation therapy does not expose the partner to radiation.

Medication, lubricants, assistive devices and surgery can help with problems related to erections, vaginal dryness and pain. A counselor or sex therapist can help make recommendations. It’s also important to be open with your partner and to understand their concerns.

While nothing can replace a conversation with your doctor, there are many resources available to learn about ways to restore intimacy and reduce the sexual side effects of cancer treatment. In this article, sex therapist Daniela Wittmann talks about some of the issues faced by men undergoing prostate cancer surgery and why it’s important for couples to seek help. Overcoming embarrassment and discussing sexual symptoms and concerns with your health care team is the best way to understand how to lessen the impact of cancer treatment on your sex life.

For more tips, listen to this podcast from certified sex therapist Sallie Foley, who discusses ways to regain a sense of normalcy in the bedroom.

These resources offer more advice for talking with your doctor and remedies for common sexual problems:

National Cancer Institute Sexuality and Reproductive Information for the Patient

American Cancer Society- Sexual Side effects in Men

American Cancer Society- Sexual Side Effects in Women