Cancer & sexuality FAQs

Friday 29 October, 2010

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Reviewed by: Dr Amanda Hordern, PhD


How soon can I have sex after treatment?

This will vary greatly from person to person. It will depend on the treatment you had and how quickly you're healing - both emotionally and physically. Penetrative intercourse may take some time to achieve or may no longer be possible without medical help, especially if you've had major surgery or are continuing treatment. Start slowly with sensual massage and touching. This alone can lead to satisfaction. From there, if you are both ready, a more physical approach can be taken. Listen to yourself and your partner and take your time.

Will I ever feel normal again?

Your idea of what is ‘normal' will broaden or change. You have undergone a life-changing experience. Your body may have changed forever, so new sexual expression may be needed. Over time, with a loving and patient partner, or on your own, you will begin to feel safe and secure with your ‘new normal'.

Does it make any difference what position we use?

No, if it's not a problem for either of you. However, if you have breathing difficulties it's important that you're always the person on top. If fatigue and soreness are causing problems, change positions. Use pillows and cushions to support you and take the pressure off sore body parts. See diagrams on pages 18 and 19 of our How long will it be before I get an erection again?

This will depend on the cancer and treatment you have had. Men who have had prostate cancer may not be able to have an erection again without medical intervention. Other men may experience erection problems after cancer treatment, but this isn't always because of the surgery or radiotherapy. Worrying about the cancer or feeling depressed can affect your ability to get an erection.

Anxiety about getting and maintaining an erection, or about your ability to satisfy your partner, may also lead to erection problems. Talk to your partner - what may seem like a problem to you, may not be a problem to them.

Can I have children, and if so, when?

This will depend on a number of things, such as the type of treatment you have.

Explain your desire to have children to your treatment team before your treatment starts. Speak with your doctor about the best chance of having a baby and when that may be possible.

For women of childbearing age, cancer does not always mean infertility. Your eggs or part of an ovary may be able to be stored in case your ovaries are damaged by treatment. (This is still the subject of research and only available in some treatment centres.) Speak with your doctor about treatment that minimises damage to your fertility. If there are no other problems following your cancer surgery, there is no reason why you cannot become pregnant. Most doctors recommend a waiting period of about two years so that your body adapts and settles down, before trying for a baby. Ultimately, it is your decision, so being well informed will assist you to decide on the best timing for your situation.

Men should speak with their doctor about storing sperm before starting treatment, if they are interested.

It is important to avoid becoming pregnant during chemotherapy. This reduces the possibility of harm to the unborn baby should any of the chemicals be absorbed.

I'm single. Will anyone ever want to have sex with me once I tell them I have/had cancer?

There is no simple answer. It may be useful to consider how safe you feel in a new relationship before you decide to have sex. It may be possible to talk through your fears of rejection early on in the relationship, particularly if you have a significant body image change. It is a sad reality that some potential lovers may reject you because of your cancer treatment. Although you can avoid being rejected by isolating yourself, you might also miss the opportunity to build a happy relationship.

Can I catch cancer from my partner?

Cancer is not something you can ‘catch'.

Cervical cancer, however, is almost always caused by the human papilloma virus (HPV), which is ‘spread' through genital skin-to-skin contact.

It's important to realise that HPV infection is very common, so common in fact that it could be considered a normal part of being sexually active.

Most women with genital HPV will not develop cervical cancer. However, in rare cases, HPV can cause cell changes that, if left undetected and untreated could lead to cervical cancer.

In order to check for changes to the cells of the cervix all women aged 18 to 69 should have a Pap test every two years.

Those eligible for the cervical cancer vaccine should also speak to their doctor about being vaccinated. Visit PapScreen Victoria for more on Pap tests and the cervical cancer vaccine.

Could sex or masturbation make my cancer worse?

No. Masturbation and sex can physically and emotionally benefit those who have experienced cancer.

Are there times when intercourse should be avoided?

Yes. Vaginal intercourse is probably best avoided very soon after surgery or radiotherapy to the pelvic area in women. Discuss this with your treating team before you start treatment, so you and your partner have realistic expectations. Also, it's safest to use a condom or some other form of barrier contraception during and immediately after chemotherapy for 48 hours.

How long after chemotherapy can we stop using a condom?

Usually, about 48 hours after chemotherapy. It is, however, important to avoid becoming pregnant while having chemotherapy and for some time after your treatment has finished.

Questions for your treatment team

Discussing sexual concerns with your treatment team might be difficult. You may feel uncomfortable with the subject, or sense that your health professional may be too. If a member of your treatment team doesn't ask about your sexuality, it's perfectly okay for you to bring the subject up.

But if you don't feel satisfied with their response, ask for a referral to someone who can more freely discuss sexual matters with you. This is also perfectly acceptable.

Below is a list of suggested questions to get the conversation started with your health professional. 

General

  • How will this treatment affect me, sexually?
  • How will this treatment affect my hormones?
  • What changes are likely in the short term and what changes are likely long term?
  • When will I feel like having sex again?
  • How soon can I masturbate or have oral sex or sexual intercourse?
  • What sort of problems may we experience during intercourse?
  • It hurt when we had intercourse. Why?
  • What kind of contraception should I use?
  • Can I have children?
  • If I've had a sexually transmitted disease, will it come back with chemotherapy?
  • Will I ever feel normal again?
  • Can I get any information about finding a sexual counsellor or therapist?

For women

  • Would hormone replacement therapy be necessary or beneficial?
  • I have extreme vaginal dryness. What do you recommend?

For men

  • Why can't I get an erection?
  • How long will it be before I can get an erection again?
  • What can I do if I can't get an erection?
Updated: 29 Oct, 2010