Because sexuality and sexual relationships differ from one person to the next, there is no blueprint for how cancer might affect your sex life. Professor Michael Herbst of the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) explains that while some people might experience changes to the phases of sexual response – desire, arousal, orgasm and resolution – others experience none.
"The most common sexual change for cancer patients is an overall loss of desire," says Herbst. "For men, erection problems are also a common problem. For women, vaginal dryness and pain with sexual activity are frequent. Most men and women are still able to have an orgasm even if cancer treatment interferes with erections or vaginal lubrication, or involves removing some parts of the pelvic organs. However, it is common for patients to need more time or stimulation to reach orgasm."
The fallout of side effects
Certain cancers – such as those of the reproductive organs – may interfere directly with sexual desire and performance. However, these are not the only cancers that are likely to have an impact on your sex life. Treatments such as surgery, chemotherapy, hormone treatment and radiation can also affect your desire for and ability to have sex.
"Cancer treatment side effects such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, hair loss, weight changes, scars and sensitivity to taste and smells may leave one feeling exhausted and uncomfortable," explains Herbst. "These side effects consume so much energy that sex may be low on your priority list at times."
The psychological impact of cancer
In addition to leaving you physically drained, cancer and its treatment can also leave you emotionally exhausted. Financial stress caused by the disease, as well as concerns over whether or not you'll survive the cancer, all contribute to an increased likelihood of anxiety and depression, which could result in a loss of libido. Physical manifestations of the cancer treatment – scars, loss of hair or bloating – may negatively affect how you feel about your body and, in turn, your sexuality.
6 strategies for coping
- Before your treatment begins, ask your doctor what side effects you can expect so that you can prepare for them.
- Give yourself time to adjust to the changes before starting or resuming a sexual relationship.
- Don't be afraid to speak to your doctor about physical problems you may be experiencing during sex – such as erectile dysfunction, pain or vaginal dryness – as there may be a straightforward medical remedy.
- Talk to your partner about your worries and your fears. It might also help to see a sex therapist either on your own or as a couple.
- If sex is too difficult, explore other ways of fostering intimacy. Holding hands, cuddling, talking about your feelings and participating in common interests.
- Be a little less spontaneous. Schedule sex for times when you are less likely to be fatigued or uncomfortable.
For more information visit the CANSA website or call CANSA's helpline on 0800 22 66 22.
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