Relationships and sexuality

Sunday 1 June, 2014

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On this page: The effect on partners | Sexuality and intimacy | Starting a new relationship

Cancer and infertility issues can strengthen a relationship with a partner or strain it.

Whether or not you have a partner, it may be a good idea to find out your fertility status as soon as possible. This way, you can reflect on what you want, and/or start a conversation with a partner about what the future may hold.

The effect on partners

Cancer, infertility and changes to your sexuality can put pressure on your relationship with a partner.

Your partner will also experience a range of emotions, including helplessness, frustration, fear, anger and sadness. How your relationship is affected may depend on how long you have been together, the strength of your relationship before cancer and/or infertility, and how well you communicate.

Everyone copes with infertility in their own way. Some partners are very supportive, while others don’t want to face what is happening and refuse to talk about it.

Fertility issues often become a source of unspoken tension between partners. If your partner is reluctant to participate in decisions about fertility, you might feel like you’re doing it alone or making all the decisions. It can also be challenging if you and your partner disagree about what to do, and focus on different outcomes. A fertility counsellor can help you cope with these issues.

Before starting a complex or emotional discussion, assess if it is a good time. If you begin to feel there is never a good time, a counsellor, psychologist or social worker can help you start these discussions.

Sexuality and intimacy

Experiencing a diagnosis of cancer, managing the side effects of treatment, and living with uncertainty or infertility may affect your body image and interest in intimacy and sex (low libido). Some people say they have a negative body image as a result of treatment or because their body has ‘let them down’. You may feel that sex has become laden with the stress of fertility.

Some cancer treatments may cause specific physical problems, such as pain on penetrative intercourse. Experiencing these problems may be a devastating blow to you and your partner, if you have one.

It will take time to accept any physical and emotional changes. It may be helpful to:

  • nurture your body with exercise, a healthy diet and sleep
  • set aside some time to have a date with a partner
  • think about what used to get you sexually stimulated and if it still does
  • experiment with things like masturbation, lubrication and sex aides (e.g. vibrators or toys)
  • try to focus on enjoyment and pleasure, rather than conception
  • clearly communicate your feelings or boundaries to a partner (e.g. “I just want to cuddle now” or “That feels good”).

If penetration is not an option, you may try new ways to become sexually aroused. See the Sexuality and Intimacy after Cancer Project for more information. Cancer Council’s Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer booklet may also be helpful – call 13 11 20 for a free copy.

You may find that despite difficulties, your experiences help you to explore sex and intimacy in different ways.

Starting a new relationship

It can be scary to start a new relationship after being diagnosed with cancer.

Talking to a potential partner or new partner about your fears or fertility issues may be a difficult conversation. You might worry that they won’t be interested in you because you’ve had cancer, or you can’t have children or have chosen not to.

You may also worry about finding the right time to have these conversations. Feeling confident in yourself is a good starting place for a new relationship. Talking through the scenario with a friend, family member or health professional may help you practise what to say and think about how the conversation could go. 

"Finally telling him I can’t have kids came as such a relief to me. The funny thing was that he felt relieved too, because he hadn’t told me yet, but he never wanted to be a parent." - Satomi

Reviewers: Prof Martha Hickey, Head of Obstetrics and Gynaecology, University of Melbourne, VIC; Franca Agresta, Clinical Research Manager, Melbourne IVF, VIC; Alyssa White, National Publications Project Manager, Cancer Council NSW; and Georgia Mills, Cancer Survivor.
Updated: 01 Jun, 2014