Even though cancer experiences are unique, people often suffer changes to their self-esteem and body image that affect sexual relations with their partners. These changes might be few and temporary or severe and permanent. Sexuality might be affected by an array of changes, such as:
- Physical appearance. Depending on how cancer treatment has affected you, this can be a challenge. For instance, losing a body part, having a scar or weight gain or loss can make you self-conscious and insecure in intimacy. You may worry that having sex will hurt or pain may interfere with your enjoyment. You may feel that you can’t perform or that you are not attractive to your partner anymore.
- Performance ability. Some cancer treatments can affect the way you experience sexual relations. Some cancer drugs might decrease your libido or desire, or affect the functioning of sexual organs in both men and women alike. Radiotherapy or surgery of the sexual organs can also affect function and affect your ability to get aroused or have an orgasm.
- Emotional challenges. Feelings of fear, anger, guilt, stress, anxiety and sadness can all affect your interest in sex and your ability to feel close to your partner. You may find that cuddling, fondling or holding each other close is more comforting than sexual intercourse.
There are many steps that you can take to make the experience more meaningful, such as having honest, open communication with your partner. When this is not enough, asking for help from a professional can make a difference. The Canadian Cancer Society suggests what to do when dealing with sexual issues:
- Don’t hide your fears and worries; talk about them.
- Tell your partner about sensitive or painful areas in your body.
- Tell your partner when you are or are not interested in sex.
- You both might be scared to have sex during or after treatment but, unless indicated by a doctor, there no reason to avoid sex.
- Physical touch is incredibly important. It stimulates oxytocin in the brain which is the “happy” hormone.
- Be patient because it may take more time for you to become aroused. Be open to different ways of feeling or creating sexual pleasure.
- We are born sexual beings and we die sexual beings.
- Practice mindfulness of the present moment.
- Give yourself permission to let go.
“The good news is that interest in sex and intimacy often returns once you have recovered from cancer treatment and you’re back to your daily routine.”
 Dr Gabriela Illie in “Staying Mindfully Connected and Experiencing Intimacy after a Cancer Diagnosis“. CCSN webinar, June 28th, 2018.