Relationships and sexuality

For some people, having cancer and treatment has no effect on their sexuality and sex lives.

Sometimes the anxiety and/or depression felt by some after diagnosis or treatment can affect their sexual desire. We are all sexual beings and intimacy adds to the quality of our lives. Cancer treatment and the psychological effects of cancer might affect you and your partner in different ways.

Some people may withdraw through feelings of being unable to cope with the effects of radiation treatment to themselves or their partner. Others might feel an increased need for sexual and intimate contact for reassurance.

It is important for you to share your fears and needs with your partner.

You might be able to find creative ways to meet these needs and cope with the fears, identifying possible solutions that suit you.

Sexual intercourse is only one of the ways that you can show affection for one another. Communicating and sharing your feelings can result in greater openness, sensitivity, and physical closeness between you.

Shows of affection, gentle touches, cuddling, and fondling can also reassure you of your need for one another.

“I said to him ‘Our sexual activities are going to be affected.’ He said ‘That’s going to be a bit of a problem’ [laughing]. We [now] engage in some sort of sexual activity — like in the morning — I touch him and he likes that.” Silei

Radiation treatment to the pelvic area can cause inflammation of the walls of the vagina. When inflammation reduces, scar tissue can form, which can make the vagina narrower and shorter. The vaginal walls might be dry and thin, and can stick together. Less vaginal lubricant may be produced, which can make you more likely to get vaginal infections such as thrush. To help keep the vagina supple and to prevent scar tissue from forming, you will be advised to use vaginal dilators. Vaginal dilators are tampon-shaped plastic devices with a rounded end. There are a number of different types available. They come in varying sizes. Instructions for using dilators might differ slightly from hospital to hospital, but the principles are the same.

Regular sexual intercourse can also help to keep the vagina healthy, although this might initially be uncomfortable. You can also use a vibrator or your fingers to gently stretch the vagina to keep it supple and make sexual intercourse and vaginal examinations more comfortable. Ask your doctor or treatment team for more information.

Men who undergo radiation treatment to the pelvis might also experience loss of interest in sex, temporary impotence, and tiredness. These effects can be distressing, and might last for several weeks after radiation treatment has finished. Sometimes impotence is permanent.

“Our sexual relationship has become a bit boring. Filled up with oestrogen you’d expect it. It would make a bit of a difference if we were in our 30s or 40s, but things are slowing down a bit anyway really.” Gerald

Talk to someone you trust if you are experiencing difficulties or ongoing problems with sexual relationships. Friends, family members, radiation therapists, nurses, or your doctor might be able to help.

Your local Cancer Society can also provide information about sexual counselling services. You may find the Cancer Society’s booklet, Sexuality and Cancer/Ho-kakatanga me teMatepukupuku, helpful. You can get it by phoning the Cancer Information Helpline 0800 CANCER (226 237), or by downloading it from our website.

“Last week we went holding hands and walking in the rain. We felt a bit insane but that was okay [laughing]. I’ve given myself permission to celebrate being touchy, touchy, feely, feely with my husband. And anything positive in that department we talk about it.” Silei