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Cancer Treatment Centers of America

Intimacy and cancer

A cancer diagnosis may change cancer patients’ relationship with their partners in many ways, including how they interact, share intimate moments and engage in sexual intercourse.  These changes may be caused by physical effects from various cancer treatments, or from emotions triggered by feelings of loss, insecurity or a lack of control. Discussing your concerns and experiences with your care team may help you and your partner better communicate and take new steps to prepare for and manage cancer-related relationship changes as they occur. At Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA), we offer a variety of counseling and other programs to help you maintain your quality of life and strengthen your relationship during and after cancer treatment. These services include cognitive behavioral therapy, couples counseling and other mind-body strategies, as well as medications and techniques designed to lessen the impact of radiation therapy, chemotherapy, surgery and other treatments.  

Because of their biological makeup, men and women often experience relationship and intimacy challenges differently. Their experiences may also vary based on their cancer types and individual treatment regimens. For example, treatments that may cause side effects that impact intimacy, sexual intercourse and relationships include:

  • Hormone therapy: Men with advanced or metastatic prostate cancer may be prescribed hormone therapies that reduce their production of testosterone and other androgens. This may lead to hot flashes, decreased sex drive, impotence, loss of muscle mass and other physical changes.

    Hormone therapies for women with ovarian cancer and breast cancer curb estrogen production. This may trigger physical changes that resemble menopausal symptoms, including hot flashes and vaginal dryness.

  • Chemotherapy: For women, some anti-cancer drugs may irritate mucous membranes, making sex temporarily difficult or painful. A weakened immune system may also raise the risk of yeast and other infections during treatment. Some chemotherapy drugs may lead to early menopause in some women and sterility in some men.
  • Surgery: Depending on the location of the tumors, certain surgical procedures may impair body function and/or self-image in both men and women. For men, surgeries for prostate, bladder or colon cancer may damage nerves or blood vessels, affecting their ability to achieve or maintain an erection. For women, surgeries to remove breast, cervical or other gynecologic cancers may lead to physical changes that make sexual activity painful or that impact their self-esteem.
  • Radiation: Men treated with radiation therapy to the lower belly may experience scarring or nerve damage that affects their ability to have an erection. Radiation treatments for women with pelvic-area cancers may develop decreased tissue elasticity or scarring, which may make sex difficult or painful.

How mind-body medicine and other supportive care therapies may help

The supportive care clinicians at CTCA® understand the many ways that cancer may affect sexual relationships and intimacy. We offer a variety of strategies for adjusting and adapting to those changes. Depending on your needs, your care plan may include medication or rehabilitative strategies to improve body function and help boost your self-image. Individual and couples counseling as well as support group programs are also available to help ease the transition to life after cancer treatment.       

Mind-Body Medicine

Speaking with an experienced counselor may help both men and women adjust to cancer-related changes by offering strategies to reframe the future in a positive light. Communicating often, finding new ways to connect emotionally and physically, and focusing on what’s working and what’s possible may help improve intimate relationships.

Oncology Rehabilitation

Physical and occupational therapy techniques may improve your body image and function. Hands-on therapies, for example, may help soften scar tissue, while tissue massage and vaginal dilation may help women who experience pain during intercourse. Gels and other products may help with dryness. For men, certain exercises may increase their sex drive and performance, and erectile dysfunction medications and other strategies may help with impotence. Other integrative therapies, including acupuncture and naturopathic medicine, may also offer benefits. Ask your care team for more information about these options.