Iris Oncology
Sexual Wellness

Sexual Health After a Cancer Diagnosis

With the various physical and emotional changes that can arise from a cancer diagnosis, it iscommon to feel “just not myself.”This can be especially true for your sexual health. 

Sexuality - how you view yourself in relation to your gender as well as your physical attraction to others - is an important aspect of your identity that may be impacted by cancer. While many people may not realize it, sexuality is interwoven into daily life, from how you dress to how you take care of your body to the people with whom you surround yourself.  

Cancer treatment and body image

Body image encompasses feelings and thoughts about the body and its functioning, not just about physical appearance. Sexuality and body image are closely linked. 

For many cancer types, treatment may cause changes to the body that can impact your sexual health. For example, it is common to experience fatigue, hair loss, scarring, weight changes, and skin changes from cancer treatment. Some of these changes may be temporary while others longer lasting. While it may not seem obvious that these changes could affect your sexual self, these shifts may impact your connection to your body and how you experience pleasure.    

There are certain cancers that may more directly impact your sexual health including (but not limited to) cancers of the breast, gynecological, genital areas, testicles, prostate, bladder, colon, rectum, and anus. With changes and losses, it is natural to feel a shift in your sexual self and how you relate to others. 

It is also possible for cancer to help you pay more attention to your body and how it can bring you pleasure. Becoming more attuned to your body’s physical and emotional needs may help you to feel more loved or more connected intimately with yourself or your partner. 

Physical side effects of treatment that impact sexual functioning

Side effects from surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, and hormone therapy can impact sexual health and function.The following chart highlights some of the common sexual side effects of cancer treatment.   

Women*

Men*

Reduced desire in sexual drive, difficulty achieving orgasm, hot flashes, vaginal dryness and weakening of the vaginal wall/muscles which can make penetrative sexual intercourse painful. 

Reduced desire in sexual drive, trouble maintaining an erection, difficulty with orgasm, and having an orgasm without the excretion of semen.

However, there are strategies for helping to mitigate symptoms for those experiencing these side effects:

Women*  

Men*  

Use of moisturizers and lubricants to the vagina to help with dryness and to alleviate pain during penetrative sexual intercourse.

Use of dilators to assist with vaginal atrophy.

Guidance from a pelvic floor therapist and sexual therapist to help with restoring vaginal health and desire.

Experiment with different methods of self-pleasure.

Meet with a doctor who specializes in men’s health 

Work with a sex therapist.

Experiment with different methods of self-pleasure.

*In this article, we use “women” and “men” while recognizing the imperfection of this language for individuals who are transgender, non-binary, or for those whose gender does not match their anatomy.  

Navigating the invisible sexual side effects of cancer

Regardless of whether you are single, dating, or in a relationship(s), you will likely notice changes around how you feel sexually. For example: 

  • Anxiety and stress can have an impact on sexual function and desire. 

  • It may feel more challenging to get “in the mood” for engaging in sex. 

  • It can be hard to transition back and forth from being a medical patient to a sexual being.  

The following are suggestions for helping you feel more connected to your body.  

  • Acknowledge body changes. Give yourself permission to honor your feelings of sadness, anger, gratitude, and fear. Approach with curiosity and compassion.   Read our Iris Mini resource for navigating your body image and others' perceptions during and after cancer and its treatment.

  • Reflect on how you related to your body in the past. If this has been a past area of challenge for you, a cancer diagnosis may trigger strong feelings.  

  • Talk with your medical team about your concerns over the changes to your body. Your medical team may be able to refer you to specialists with expertise in sexual health-related matters. 

  • Know you are not alone. Some people find it helpful to connect with others who are going through a similar experience for support and guidance. Connect with a peer mentor or join a support group for people living with cancer. 

  • Attention to your senses can help you feel more attuned to your body. You might need to explore new ways and find out what feels pleasurable to touch, hear, taste, smell, and see.Be mindful that the relationship to some of your senses may have shifted during treatment.  

  • Cultivate curiosity and consider exploration of your body. While certain sexual behaviors that you engaged in prior to cancer may not be possible now, think about other ways of achieving sexual pleasure with sex aids, physical positions, and massage. Focusing on something new may lead to appreciating your body or sensations in new ways.  

  • Talk to your partner.If you are intimately involved with someone who is also caring for you during cancer treatment, the sexual dynamic between you as a couple may shift.It can be helpful to discuss these concerns / fears together and to be open with each other. View our Iris Mini exercise on couples' challenges.

Getting support

The process of becoming more attuned to your body takes patience, time, and a concerted effort. As you reconnect with your body, it may be helpful to chat with an Iris oncology nurse regarding sexual side effects and intervention strategies. It may also be helpful to talk with an Iris mental health therapist regarding coping with a changed body and your sexual experience. 

This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.