Sexual difficulties after cancer treatment

Sexual difficulties are common after cancer treatments. Cancer and its treatments can affect your sex life in a number of ways. 

While you are dealing with your cancer and having treatment you may not be thinking about your sex life. But once treatment is over you may experience problems that you had not expected.

Physical and emotional problems that affect your sex life can happen weeks or even months after treatment.

Physical difficulties

You may have physical difficulties that make it hard for you to have sex. These include:

  • Vaginal dryness that makes sex uncomfortable

  • Finding it hard to get or keep an erection (impotence)

  • Not being able to orgasm or a loss of feeling in your genitals or breasts

  • Scar tissue from surgery or radiotherapy that can cause pain and discomfort during sex

  • A narrowing of the vagina, caused by radiotherapy to the pelvic area

Lower sex drive (low libido)

You may not feel like having sex after treatment has ended. This can be hard on you and your partner.

Sex drive can be affected by:

  • Fatigue (extreme tiredness)

  • Feeling uncomfortable with your body

  • Menopausal symptoms

  • Medication, such as hormone therapy 

  • Depression 

Changes to your body after cancer

You may feel uncomfortable with changes to your body after your treatment has ended:

  • You may have had a breast or testicle or other part of your body removed

  • You may have scarring

  • You may be wearing a colostomy bag

  • You may have put on or lost weight or have hair loss

Worries

You may feel nervous about having sex because you are worried:

  • That having sex may be painful

  • About sexual performance

  • That your partner may not find you attractive

  • That you are less masculine or feminine than before you had cancer

Your sex life may change for a short time before returning to normal, or there may be a permanent change to your sex life.

Sexual problems are very common but they often go untreated because people are afraid or embarrassed to talk about them.

What medical help is available for sexual problems?

Sexual problems can cause a strain on you and your relationship, which can add to the problem. It’s important to tell your doctor about any changes in your sex life. You may find it embarrassing to talk about a sexual problem – but your doctor can help to find out what is causing the problem and advise you on how to deal with it. 

If your sexual problems are linked to how you feel about your body or feelings of depression or worry, your doctor may refer you to a counsellor or specialist sex therapist. You may be able to go for counselling with your partner, if this would be helpful. 

Medicines such as sildenafil (Viagra®) and tadalafil (Cialis®)  can help with impotence.

You might also be advised to try a vacuum pump or special injections, which can help you to get and keep an erection. 

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help with menopausal symptoms such as vaginal dryness and low sex drive, but it is not suitable for everyone. 

Vaginal dilators and lubricants can help if your vagina is narrower after radiotherapy.

How can I cope better with sexual problems? 

Get help

If you are having problems with your sex life after cancer treatment the most important thing is to seek help and support. Your doctor can help you with physical problems and also with emotional issues like anxiety and embarrassment.

Counsellors, psychologists, relationship counsellors and sex therapists can also help you.

To talk to a specialist cancer nurse in confidence you can call  our Cancer Nurseline on 1800 200 700 or visit a Daffodil Centre.

Involve your partner, if you have one

Talk to your partner. Your sex life affects both of you and supporting each other to tackle any problems can bring you closer. See our section Coping with feelings after cancer treatment for information on sexual relationships after cancer and tips on talking to your partner.

Try new ways to be close

If you don’t feel like having sex or sex is difficult, it can help to try different ways to be close to your partner. Just touching, kissing or hugging can make you feel close until the time when you and your partner feel ready for sex again. If you feel more comfortable with the lights turned off or with a part of your body covered up tell your partner.

Tackle side-effects

Try lifestyle changes to improve side-effects like fatigue or menopausal symptoms that may affect your sex life. Other pages in this section have tips to help you cope with other common side-effects of cancer treatment. 

Look after yourself and your appearance

It can be hard to feel comfortable with your body if it has changed after treatment. Weight changes, hair loss or gain, skin changes and the effects of surgery can make you feel unattractive and affect your self-esteem and sexual confidence. 

  • Take care of yourself and your body – try to focus on parts of your body not affected by cancer. 

  • Keep fit and healthy – build up your muscles and energy levels. 

  • Treat yourself to a new hairstyle, new clothes or beauty treatments like a spray tan or manicure. These can help you to feel better and more confident in your appearance.

  • Try over-the-counter treatments

Your pharmacist may be able to recommend treatments to help some sexual problems that are available without a prescription. For example, vaginal moisturisers, water-based lubricants and painkillers can help if sex is uncomfortable. 

For more information or if you need support talk to a specialist cancer nurse by calling the Cancer Nurseline or visit a Daffodil Centre.

Our factsheets Sexuality and breast cancer and section on sex, erectile dysfunction and prostate cancer have more information on managing the physical and emotional effects of cancer treatment. 

Call our Cancer Nurseline

Freephone 1800 200 700 to talk to a specialist cancer nurse. It's open Monday-Thursday from 9am to 6pm and Friday from 9am to 5pm.

Date Last Reviewed: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
Date Last Revised: 
Tuesday, November 24, 2015