Keeping a healthy sex life after cancer treatment

A healthy sex life after cancer
Changes in sexual function or libido for both sexes most often come as a result of cancer treatment. Learn more.

A healthy sex life is, for many, a key component of a happy life. But it can prove difficult to attain, especially if a cancer diagnosis or treatment regimen is adding to your everyday pressures. Achieving and maintaining a healthy sexual relations often requires communication, education and, sometimes, the input of a trained professional. That journey can be dramatically different for men than it is for women. 

It’s often difficult for men to acknowledge that they are experiencing some loss in sexual function or reduced libido, while women may be more open to expressing their emotions. Understanding these differences, and the various reasons sexual changes occur during or after cancer treatment, is the first step toward sexual health, says Britt Hermann, a sex therapist at our hospital near Chicago.

“Men don’t typically voice that they don’t feel well enough to have sex, because they feel like it’s a masculine thing. But talking about it, especially with a health care professional, can help identify the problem, and potential solutions,” Hermann says. “Sexual function is a lot more layered for women than it is for most men.”

Generally speaking, changes in sexual function or libido for both sexes most often come as a result of cancer treatment, Hermann says. For men with prostate cancer, pelvic radiation and prostate surgery can impact their ability to get and maintain an erection. Those who receive hormone therapy may notice a big difference in their sex drive because the treatment can reduce testosterone levels. Other treatments may make men feel nauseous, lethargic and/or in pain, which can greatly affect their interest in sex. In fact, cancer and its treatment can lead to a wide range of sexual health issues for men, including:

  • Erectile dysfunction (impotence)
  • Inability to ejaculate or reach orgasm
  • Loss of libido (sex drive)
  • Incontinence
  • Emotional issues (e.g., anxiety, depression, guilt)
  • Body image issues
  • Fatigue
  • Concerns about sexual performance

For women, vaginal dryness and discomfort is a common side effect of treatment, and is typically caused by drops in estrogen levels, which can make sex painful. Some treatments may also trigger early menopause, which can bring on hot flashes, mood swings, decreased libido and vaginal dryness or tightness. Other common symptoms include:

  • Loss of libido (sex drive)
  • Painful intercourse
  • Loss of sexual function or sensation
  • Emotional issues (e.g., anxiety, depression, fear)
  • Body-image issues

Hermann has several tips to help both men and women maintain a healthy sex life:

Get educated: “Understanding why certain things are happening is key to regaining your sexual health,” she says. Learning why your body may be changing during treatment can point you to potential solutions.

Open up the lines of communication: Talk to your health care professional about any issues you may be experiencing regarding sex after cancer, and perhaps even more importantly, talk to your partner. Not only will communicating help you and your partner get on the same page and fight cancer as a team, but it will also likely clear up exaggerated misperceptions on how your partner may be feeling.

Seek out a third-party professional moderator: Having a trained professional who is not a friend or family member counsel you in a safe, comfortable setting can help you understand and overcome sexual health issues.

Read more about men and cancer and women and cancer.