Cancer and Sex Drive
Advances in the diagnosis and treatment of cancer has led to more individuals living longer with cancer and after treatment for cancer. Due to this shift, healthcare professionals are recognizing the importance of maximizing quality of life for those impacted by cancer including the patient and their loved ones.
Sexual activity has often been under-addressed by healthcare professionals for these individuals and their partners causing more cancer patients to be dissatisfied with their sex lives as compared to those of similar age without cancer. (Jackson)
Common Side Effects from Cancer Treatments
According to the Mayo Clinic, side effects from cancer treatments that can affect any individual’s sex life include pain during sex, less energy for sexual activity, feeling less attractive, weaker orgasms, loss of desire for sex, and hormonal changes.
Women can also experience vaginal dryness and early onset of menopause while men most commonly suffer from erectile dysfunction.
3 Ways to Recover Sex Drive After Cancer Treatment
Open communication with your healthcare team is vital to recovering your sex drive. Often individuals benefit from a multi-disciplinary approach that can treat both the physical and psychological impact of your cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Your medical doctors including your oncologist, urologist, or nurses can give you specifics on the effects your specific cancer and treatments may have on your sexual function.
They can make recommendations for if/when sexual intercourse is safe, prescribe medications or creams, address symptoms limiting sexual activity, and recommended any needed medical devices.
You may also benefit from seeing a provider who can address the psychological impact of cancer including a social worker, psychologist, or sex therapist. Treatments may include cognitive behavioral therapy, stress management, addressing fears regarding diagnosis/treatment or return to sexual activity, and discuss impacts of cancer on self-esteem and body image.
Research has shown that healthcare providers are notoriously bad at bringing up sexual changes from cancer so be prepared to initiate these conversations or ask questions if your concerns are not being addressed.
These discussions are vital in all stages of cancer treatment from initial diagnosis to end of life care if needed to support the importance of sexual health on quality of life.
Individuals who are transgender or identify as LGBTQ+ might consider seeking out providers with training in these areas to address your specific healthcare needs when it comes to cancer treatment and your sexual health.
- Including your partner in communication with your healthcare providers can help address barriers when regaining sexual drive. Additionally, discussions with your partner about new fears, hesitations, or needed changes to your sexual routines can help restore intimacy.
- Some individuals benefit from talking to other cancer patients/survivors through in-person or online support groups to relate to others who have successfully navigated the unique challenges you may face. (American Cancer Society, Susan G Koman)
2) Medical Devices
- Men can benefit from devices to treat erectile dysfunction including a vacuum erection device (VED) or a penile implant. A VED stiffens the penis by using a pump to draw blood into the penis to create an erection.
These devices are particularly useful after prostate cancer surgery to minimize loss of penile length and provide fresh blood flow to stimulate healing and regrowth of nerves that cause erections. Alternatively, men can undergo a surgical procedure for the placement of a penile implant to allow for more spontaneous erections. (University of Utah Healthcare)
- Women can use vaginal dilators which are cone shaped devices provide gentle stretching to the vagina to allow a return to sexual intimacy. Dilators can be utilized after radiation treatment for pelvic cancers as radiation can cause irritation, thinning, and shortening of the vaginal wall impacting intercourse.
Research indicates that dilators are best used after radiation treatment and the subsequent acute inflammatory phase of healing has ended. For both use of a dilator and for vaginal intercourse, using a lot of water-based lubrication without additives and moisturizer is recommended to counteract vaginal dryness after cancer treatment. (Miles, American Cancer Society)
- All medical devices should be used with careful guidance and recommendations from a qualified healthcare provider.
3) Experimentation and Exploration
- Despite efforts of healthcare professionals addressing physical and psychological effects of cancer and treatments, sometimes modifications to intimacy patterns are required to adjust to these changes.
Through experimentation and exploration, you can determine what your new sexual needs entail. This may include exploring with mental images or discovering which parts of your body like to be touched or avoided.
Try experimenting with different body positions during foreplay and penetration including adding pillows for support, using light tough across the body or on sexually excitable areas, or adding toys like a vibrator.
You can address any physical changes to your body that you would like to make you feel more attractive by wearing sexy outfits or clothing that covers anything you would feel more comfortable hiding, adding a prosthesis if a secondary sexual features such as a breast or testicle has been removed, or addressing cosmetic changes through tattoos, permanent make-up, or plastic surgery to allow you feel more comfortable in your own body.
Cancer diagnosis and treatment often lead to changes physically and/or mentally that impact sexual desire and function.
By addressing the specific impacts to your sex life both individually and with your partner, you can minimize these negative affects to maintain a satisfying sex life.
Jackson, S. E., Wardle, J., Steptoe, A., & Fisher, A. (2016). Sexuality after a cancer diagnosis: A population-based study. Cancer, 122(24), 3883–3891. https://doi.org/10.1002/cncr.30263
How Cancer and Cancer Treatment Can Affect Sexuality. Cancer.org. (2020). Retrieved 20 September 2020, from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fertility-and-sexual-side-effects/how-cancer-affects-sexuality.html.
Sexuality and Intimacy | Susan G. Komen®. Ww5.komen.org. (2018). Retrieved 20 September 2020, from https://ww5.komen.org/BreastCancer/SexandSexuality.html.
Vacuum Erection Device (VED). Healthcare.utah.edu. (2020). Retrieved 20 September 2020, from https://healthcare.utah.edu/menshealth/conditions/erectile-dysfunction/vacuum-erection-device.php.
How Radiation Therapy Can Affect the Sex Life of Females with Cancer. Cancer.org. (2020). Retrieved 20 September 2020, from https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fertility-and-sexual-side-effects/sexuality-for-women-with-cancer/pelvic-radiation.html.
Miles T, Johnson N. 2014. Vaginal dilator therapy for women receiving pelvic radiotherapy. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews 2014, Issue 9. Art. No.: CD007291. DOI: 10.1002/14651858.CD007291.pub3.
Cancer treatment for men: Possible sexual side effects. Mayo Clinic. (2020). Retrieved 20 September 2020, from https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/cancer/in-depth/cancer-treatment/art-20045422.