Cancer and its treatments sometimes cause side effects that make it difficult to have sexual intercourse:
- Men: Genital discomfort, pain during ejaculation, or difficulty achieving or maintaining an erection
- Women: Dry vagina, abnormal vaginal discharge, or bleeding after or during intercourse
If any of these side effects occur, patients should tell their health care team. The doctor and other specialists can find the cause and identify ways to help. For example, some men benefit from penile rehabilitation, and some men and women benefit from hormone replacement therapy to help restore sexual function.
Here are some suggestions for managing cancer-related changes in sexual health:
- Patients should talk openly with their partners and health care teams about sex. Express expectations, concerns, or any problems affecting sexual health.
- Patients of child-bearing age should ask their health care teams when it is safe to resume unprotected sex after treatment. Learn more about cancer and fertility.
- Keep an open mind about ways to give and receive sexual pleasure. Intimacy can still be expressed by touching, cuddling, and sharing feelings.
Emotional and Psychological Effects on Sexual Health
Many patients experience feelings and emotions that lessen sexual desire during or after cancer treatment such as fatigue, stress, depression, anxiety, and negative body image. The partner may also feel anxious about wanting sexual intimacy for fear it might come across as pressure or that it might cause discomfort.
Honest communication of feelings, concerns, and preferences is important. Some patients benefit from sexual counseling, which can offer many benefits:
- Address body image and self-esteem concerns
- Explore emotional impacts of cancer and treatment
- Increase confidence and hopefulness
- Teach new or better ways to communicate and cope
- Avoid sexual contact with people who have sexually transmitted diseases or infectious diseases (such as a cold, the flu, or cold sores).
- Ask your doctor or nurse about any concerns related to fertility.
- Empty the bladder before sexual activity.
- Find positions for sexual intimacy that are comfortable for both people and that avoid pressure on any painful or tender areas of the body.
- Take prescribed pain medicines an hour before sexual activity.
- Tell your doctor or nurse if there is any pain during sexual activity.
- Try new ways to give and receive sexual pleasure. Remember there may be times when intercourse is not possible, but touching, stroking, cuddling, and just being physically close can be pleasurable.
- Use a water-soluble lubricating gel to ease penetration.
- Wash hands before and after sexual activity.
- Do Kegel exercises regularly, which help strengthen and relax vaginal muscles. Ask the doctor for instructions.
- Feel adequately aroused before starting intercourse. This helps the vaginal muscles relax and expand.
- Talk with your doctor if signs of premature menopause occur (such as hot flashes, irritability, headaches, vaginal dryness, or decreased interest in sex). Some women benefit from hormone replacement therapy.
- Urinate after sex. This flushes out bacteria that may cause infection in the urinary tract. Wash hands before and after sexual activity.
- Do Kegel exercises regularly, which help strengthen the muscles that prevent leakage of urine (incontinence). Ask your doctor for instructions.
- Talk with your doctor if symptoms such as loss of sexual desire, erection problems, trouble reaching orgasm, premature ejaculation, or pain occur. Your doctor can help find the cause and ways to help.
- Huntsman Cancer Institute offers many resources to address cancer-related changes sexual health: