Survivorship

Reclaiming Your Sexual Health

Both cancer and its treatments can take a significant toll on your sexual health. Sexual activity can benefit you physically, psychologically and emotionally, so it’s important for your overall well-being to conquer any problems you’re facing. However, reclaiming your sexuality is a process that doesn’t happen overnight, so be patient as you work to rediscover this side of yourself.

After going through cancer treatment, many survivors report feeling disconnected from their bodies. An important first step toward reclaiming your sexuality is to embrace your new self, including all the scars, discolorations and other “battle wounds” that are a result of your cancer treatment. People around you, including your partner, will pick up on that self-acceptance and respond in kind.

Remember, open communication is the key to a healthy intimate relationship. Sit down with your partner and openly share your concerns, fears and other feelings. Allow your partner to do the same. You might want to talk about ways to be intimate other than with sexual intercourse. Depending on your situation, you might consider a discussion with a professional counselor or therapist. Many couples have benefited from this third-party expertise and have grown closer because of it. Do your best to set aside one-on-one time with your partner to rediscover and strengthen the intimacy in your relationship.

Common Post-Treatment Problems

People who have survived cancer may face post-treatment sexual difficulties, such as a decreased sex drive, the inability to achieve or maintain arousal, pain during intercourse or the delay or absence of orgasm. Many factors can cause sexual difficulties. Your doctor may look for physical factors that contribute to sexual issues, including high blood pressure or diabetes. Sometimes controlling these can correct the problem.

Emotional side effects, such as depression, anxiety, an altered body image or fear of being viewed as undesirable, can also affect sexual health in a negative way. Your doctor may also ask if your relationship with your partner is tense, strained or in conflict. The emotional impact of being treated for cancer can influence your ability to have sex. Dealing with your feelings and emotions can help treat your sexual challenges.

Men

The most common physical sexual problem among male cancer survivors is erectile dysfunction (ED), which is the inability to get and/or maintain an erection. Treatment for ED often combines medication with physical and psychological elements.

  • Medication. Your doctor might prescribe a medication to help. However, drugs for this may not be appropriate for every man, so be sure to discuss the risks and benefits before taking anything.
  • Secondary treatment options. If medications aren’t effective, your doctor might recommend a penis pump (vacuum erection device). This is a hollow tube with a hand- or battery powered- pump. Using this will create blood flow into the penis, causing an erection. Typically the erection will last long enough to have sex. Other strategies, such as use of penile injection therapy or penile implants, are also options for some men.

Women

The most common sexual problems that affect female survivors include vaginal dryness and discomfort, as well as pain during intercourse. Correcting these problems can help boost sex drive, arousal and ability to reach orgasm. Several remedies are available.

  • Dilators. Vaginal dilators gradually stretch the walls of the vagina, which can help increase vaginal comfort.
  • Low-dose vaginal estrogen. Estrogen is a hormone that may be used to help improve vaginal health. Estrogen can be given as a flexible ring, cream or tablet.
  • Lubricants. Water-based vaginal lubricants, which are applied inside the labia, can help reduce pain during intercourse.
  • Moisturizers. Hormonal creams and nonhormonal, over-the-counter vaginal moisturizers – commonly gels administered as a vaginal suppository or through a tampon-shaped applicator – can help relieve vaginal dryness and painful intercourse when used as directed.
  • Pelvic floor physical therapy. Some exercises can help relax muscles in the pelvis that may have become tight, weak or tender during treatment. A physical therapist can provide an exercise regimen focused on strengthening the pelvic muscle floor to help reduce pain during intercourse.
 

Dating After Cancer

It is normal for survivors to have concerns about developing new relationships and dating after treatment. Here are a some tips for how to get back into dating.

Remember that dating isn’t easy and not all dates are successful, regardless of a cancer diagnosis.

  1. Don’t feel pressured to date right away. Focus on other aspects of your social life, such as spending time with friends and family, volunteering or trying a new activity. These are great ways to boost your confidence and help you become comfortable around new people before you start dating.
  2. Build your confidence by thinking about all of the good qualities you have to offer. Also, consider the qualities you want to find in a partner. Going through treatment can greatly affect you emotionally, so keep in mind that some qualities you used to look for in a partner might have changed.
  3. When you think you may be ready to date, take it slowly.
  4. Telling a new partner about your cancer can be scary. Remember that you can reveal as much or as little information as you would like, but be prepared for questions. Ask a friend or family member to help you figure out what you want to say and how you might respond to certain questions.

Additional Resources

 

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