May 22, 2024
Survivorship Support

Sex and Survivorship

The Issue

The experience of being diagnosed and treated for cancer can have a huge impact on our bodies, our minds, and our relationships. It’s no surprise that in a recent survey, nearly 90% of cancer survivors reported that cancer had impacted their sex life in some way.

Unfortunately, in the same study, the survivors reported that only about 30% of them had been asked by their care teams about their sexual health. Clearly this is a really common issue and an unmet need for our survivor community. Furthermore, there is still a lot of stigma around sex, and it’s common for survivors to feel uncomfortable bringing it up with their care teams.

You should consider this a safe and open space to learn more about sexual health, intimacy and survivorship. It is also important to consider that while some of these things may not be of concern to you now; they could be in the future. Read on to learn more about common sexual health issues in our community, and strategies for action to improve this important part of your life.

Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

The factors that impact sex and intimacy after a cancer diagnosis are complex and unique to each survivor and their partner(s) but generally can have both physical and psychological consequences.

Relating to a new body:

Treatment for cancer can often alter and change our bodies and what we look like, which can impact our relationship to ourselves, our confidence, and the way we feel during intimacy. For example, changes related to surgery and/or radiation treatment including scarring; fibrosis; lymphedema; changes in bowel and/or bladder function. These changes can not only impact our physical functioning but also our self image and intimacy.

Navigating physical symptoms :

Both initial and maintenance cancer treatments can cause symptoms that can affect your sexual function and general well-being. These can include vaginal issues such as dryness, irritation, pain; erectile dysfunction; decreased libido; decreased arousal.

Fortunately there are a number of strategies that can be helpful in addressing these concerns some of which can be tried by yourself; some may require referral to a specialist. Talking with your provider can help direct you to what you need for you individual concerns.

Impact on your mind and mental health:

For some survivors, being diagnosed with cancer can have a really significant mental health impact that shows up as challenges with intimacy or sex. The stress of diagnosis or treatment, juggling other parts of your life, navigating things like medical bills and appointments can all make sex feel like another thing on a long list of to do’s. Your mental health can also be impacted by things like cancer-related fatigue or the stress of day-to-day life as a cancer survivor. This can impact your libido and interest level in sex, your energy to engage, and your actual enjoyment of sex. Also changes in role from partner to caregiver can have an impact on relationships and caregivers may struggle with returning to their old role.

If any of this resonates, this is a really perfect thing to consider speaking to a therapist about. There are strategies, both individual and for couples, that can be really helpful in navigating these issues. And sometimes, just feeling validated and talking about these difficult things can be helpful.

Survivor "Hacks" for Sex and Survivorship

We asked survivors directly what tips and tricks they’ve found most helpful in navigating sex and intimacy after cancer. Below are products and strategies from our survivor community, and a few testimonies on the firsthand experience from our survivors.

  • "Remember you are NOT alone. Your body changed significantly (for example, I underwent menopause at 25 to undergo treatment) and it still effects me 4 years later. That’s completely normal (for survivors) to have long-term effects of treatment. Remember to thank your body for what it did and re-teach it and help it to do things you want it to do that it once did."
  • "Express to your partner your needs and frustrations and how they can help you. Also, ask your oncologist if they have any recommendations or therapists they can recommend to you who specialize in sexual health. My cancer center had this available to me and it was very helpful to talk about these things without shame."
  • "Even though many oncology providers may not have all of the answers around managing sexual side effects of treatment, it’s definitely worth bringing it up and asking for a referral to a specialist - there are so many good options out there once you get to the right person!"
  • "Don't rush your healing. It's okay to grieve life before cancer while embracing the next season."
  • "Ask your oncology or doctor team if they have anyone on staff who addresses sexual health. I was SHOCKED that no one at my oncology office told me they had a sex specialist on staff until I started asking about sex health post-cancer. I feel like this info should be offered to everyone because so many are shy about bringing it up!"

Take home message

Start by having a conversation with your provider - just because you may not have been asked about these issues in the past doesn’t mean that they aren’t important; some providers may feel uncomfortable raising the topic first and so you can break down that barrier by initiating the conversation and asking questions.

Know that sexual health issues are common and are an expected issue for many survivors and so it is important that they are addressed just like other issues related to your cancer treatment.

The good news is there are resources and trained professionals who can help

Additional Resources

Scientific Network on Female Sexual Health and Cancer

CDC Guide to Healthy Living: Sexual Health and Intimacy

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