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Cancer and sexuality

Being diagnosed with cancer can affect your sexuality in many ways. These effects are always individual and situation-specific. Sexuality is often thought of in terms of eroticism and sex. In reality, it is a much broader issue.

Cancer and its different treatments can affect sexuality in many ways

Sexuality is a person’s individual relationship with themselves, their body and their feelings of pleasure. Sexuality is a natural part of life and being human. Human sexuality does not disappear with age or illness but it often changes shape. The meaning of sexuality is different for each person and can change at different stages and in different situations in life, and each of us is allowed to express our sexuality in our own way.

Cancer and its different treatments can affect sexuality in many ways. These may be physical, social or psychological. Changes may affect body function, appearance, your experience of yourself as a sexual person, your sexual desire, or how you relate to your partner and other people.

Lack of sexual desire is common during cancer and its treatment

Lack of sexual desire is common during cancer and its treatment. This is often due to the crisis, fear and anxiety caused by the disease. This is the normal way the mind reacts to an unusual situation. It is important to recognise how much of a problem this is, and it is OK to talk about it out loud.  Thinking of it as a normal, temporary situation and knowing that something can be done about it often makes it easier.

Tenderness, touch and gazing can help to maintain and build a connection with another person even when sex is not desired. Intimacy and touch are ways of showing love and care and ways of arousing sexual desire.

During cancer treatment, such as radiotherapy, the aim is to protect the genitals and preserve fertility as much as possible. However, side effects cannot always be avoided.

Cancer treatments may involve the removal of organs that are essential to a person’s sexuality. In particular, cancer treatment in the genital area can have a significant impact on sexual function. It can affect how the body works when aroused, whether an erection occurs, what it is like and how long it lasts.

Cancer treatments can have many consequences, including numbness in the genital area, dry mucous membranes, pain during intercourse, erectile dysfunction, early menopause and problems with urinary retention.

Cancer or its treatment can leave permanent changes in the body or how it works. These changes do not have to be a barrier to having sex. There are many ways to prevent or relieve functional disturbances. For example, there are various aids to help with erection. It is also always possible to find new ways of expressing your sexuality. 

Cancer can chance your sexuality

It is often thought that cancer only has a negative effect on sexuality and sexual fulfilment. But it can also have positive effects. Sexual pleasure can provide moments when you feel very alive. Even when life is full of misery, sexuality is allowed to be enjoyed.

Cancer can change a person’s sexuality, either temporarily or permanently. A person with cancer may experience intense self-doubt and anxiety. For example, they may be afraid of no longer being able to enjoy sex, of not being desirable or that they will no longer be able to get an erection. Younger cancer patients may worry about their ability to have children.

If sexuality is important to you and the cancer is in the genital area, for example, sexual issues may be at the forefront of your mind from the start of the disease. For some, sexuality and sex are not even on their minds during cancer and its treatments. Either way, thinking about sexuality or not thinking about it is normal.

At its best, sexuality and its pursuit during illness can strengthen a person’s resources, increase well-being and strengthen their connection with others.

Ask for help

Feelings and thoughts about sexuality can be confusing and frightening, but they should be allowed for yourself and your partner. It is best to discuss things with your partner when you are both ready to talk.

Sexual and relationship issues are no less important than other issues related to cancer and its treatment. Maintaining sexual health affects a person’s overall health, so it is important to take this into account during the illness.

From the very beginning of your illness, you can ask your doctor and other medical staff about the impact of your cancer and its treatments on your sexuality. This information will make it easier to deal with the issues and eliminate misconceptions and prejudices.

If the information provided by the treating doctor is not enough, the patient can ask for a referral to a sexual health specialist. For erectile dysfunction, the specialist is a urologist; for women, the specialist for functional sexual problems is a gynecologist. For sex, relationship and sexuality issues, you can see a sex counsellor, sex therapist, sexologist or relationship therapist.

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