Sexual side-effects of cancer treatment

Older couple laying awake in bed

Cancer treatment can affect you physically and mentally when it comes to sex. Many things can affect your sex drive and your enjoyment of sex:

  • Tiredness
  • Pain or discomfort
  • Emotions like stress, anxiety or depression
  • Changes to your hormone levels
  • Changes to your body – such as skin changes, scars or having part of your body removed
  • Physical changes that make it more difficult to have sex. For example men might not be able to climax or have an erection, women sex may have vaginal narrowing, dryness or itching, which can make sex uncomfortable

Getting support

If you’re worried about how treatment will affect your sex life, ask your medical team about this before treatment. 

If your sex life has been affected, give yourself time to recover, and don’t rush into sex if you don’t feel ready. It’s a common problem and there is lots of support available to help you with your sex life.  Don’t be shy to talk to your medical team about your sex life. There are lots of treatments that can help and there’s no need to feel embarrassed - they’re used to talking about these things.


Do not presume that you are infertile while on treatment. You must take good contraceptive precautions at this time. If you become pregnant, the drugs can harm your baby. To prevent this or any possible problems for your partner, your doctor may tell you to use a reliable method of contraception throughout your treatment. Barrier methods like condoms or the cap are usually best. You should continue this for a few months afterwards.

You and your partner

Any changes to your sex life can affect both you and your partner. It can help if you can work through any problems together.

Try to talk about your feelings

Keeping the lines of communication open can help to avoid misunderstandings and bad feelings. For example, your partner may feel rejected or take it personally if you don’t want to have sex. If you can explain how you’re feeling, it can make things easier. Try to listen to how your partner feels about everything. They will be affected by your cancer diagnosis too. 

Try to stay close physically

You may not feel like having sex, or you may not be able to have sex, but you can still be close with your partner. Kissing, hugging and touching each other can help you to feel closer. 

Get help if you need it

One-to-one or couple counselling can help you to work through your emotions and any problems in your relationship. Free counselling is available to people with cancer and their loved ones at our affiliated cancer support centres. Find out more about counselling. You can also talk to your medical team and ask about support services. 

We have more advice on managing sexual relationships.

Starting a new relationship

If you’re single, you may feel nervous about starting a new relationship. You may worry about when to tell your new partner about your cancer or feel more self-conscious about showing your body. But as you spend time together and feel more comfortable, your trust should increase and you will know when the time feels right.

Getting emotional support 

Counselling: It may help to talk openly to a counsellor about how you’re feeling. The Irish Cancer Society funds free one-to one counselling at our many local cancer support centres. You can also contact our cancer nurses, who can help you to find a sexual counsellor, if you feel you need extra support.

Irish Cancer Society cancer nurses: You can talk to one of our cancer nurses in confidence by calling our Support Line on 1800 200 700, by email, or by visiting your local Daffodil Centre.

For more information

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1800 200 700

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