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Sexuality after Cancer

“As a woman, I thought what made me a woman had been taken away. I was worried that making love would feel different after my treatment. My partner and I were able to talk to each other openly about our anxieties and slowly as time passed our sex life returned to what it was before my diagnosis.”

Because a person’s self-esteem, and more importantly their “sexual self-esteem” play a large part in sexual health, it is not unusual for women to experience a drop in sexual desire, frequency and satisfaction. Research has shown that a woman’s feelings about herself, including her mood, self-esteem, confidence, and sexual self-esteem, likely account for more of her sexual willingness than hormones and physical factors. Thus, even when post-treatment healing has settled, many women are left with changes to their sexual selves.

But it is a difficult topic to discuss. You may not feel comfortable telling your physician that you feel “less of a woman” when it seems the most important concern should be the removal of the cancer. Unfortunately, cultural taboos around discussing sexuality, especially in cancer survivors, result in many women (and their partners) suffering in silence. Although sexual problems do diminish with time in some survivors, sexual challenges may persist in a large majority of women, sometimes for years. But an end to cancer should not mean an end to a satisfying sex life.

Sexual difficulties are not an uncommon consequence of gynecological cancers and their treatments. These sexual difficulties include a loss of libido (less interest in sex or sexual drive), arousal difficulties (such as vaginal dryness), and decreased orgasmic ability or sensations. In fact, studies estimate that at least half of women with gynecological or breast cancers experience distressing sexual effects as a result of cancer treatments. The ways in which cancers and their treatments affect sexuality are complex because surgeries can damage nerves and blood vessels needed for optimal sexual function.

Chemotherapy and treatment can affect your sexuality. Often, as a result of surgery or treatment, the ovaries that provide hormones such as estrogen will have been removed or damaged causing early menopause. Radical surgery and radiation can affect the vagina, leading to pain, loss of sensation or altered sexual experience for you and your partner.

Sometimes this discomfort can be managed by learning how to use vaginal dilators to help stretch the vagina to prevent problems such as pain during sex. Many women tell us that the psychological impact of cancer and its treatment, such as mood, overall wellbeing, anxiety and altered body image, may be even more damaging to their feelings of sexual wellbeing. If this is an ongoing problem that affects you, please speak with your health care team for a referral. Most centres can help you contact sexual health specialists.

Women need to feel empowered to raise sexual concerns and challenges in their sexual self-esteem with their medical team. Doing so sends a clear message that sexuality is a fundamental part of your quality of life.

Sexuality remains an important aspect of quality of life for many cancer survivors and help is available.

Resources

Excellent books:

Woman Cancer Sex by Anne Katz
Intimacy after Cancer: A Woman’s Guide by Sally Kydd & Dana Rowett
Sexuality and Fertility after Cancer by Leslie Schover

Cancer Information Service
Canadian Cancer Society
1.888.939.3333 | www.cancer.ca
Go online to download or call and ask for:
Sexuality and Cancer: A guide for people with Cancer

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