Sexual health during and after cancer treatment

Sexual health during and after cancer treatment

Cancer treatment has many effects on the mind and body, including your sexuality.

“Whether you’re in an intimate relationship or not, we’re all sexual beings,” says Sandy Pyle, RN, an oncology nurse navigator at the Loran Smith Center for Cancer Support at Piedmont Athens Regional. “Sexuality isn’t just about sex. It’s about our desire to have intimacy and emotional connectedness to another person.”

How cancer treatment affects sexual health

Chemotherapy, radiation therapy, surgery, hormone-blocking therapy and other cancer treatments can lead to psychological and physiological side effects like:

  • Decreased sexual desire

  • Depression

  • Difficulty achieving an erection

  • Difficulty reaching orgasm

  • Fatigue

  • Hormonal changes

  • Hot flashes

  • Negative body image

  • Pain

  • Stress

  • Vaginal dryness

All of these side effects can impact your sexual health.

How to talk to your oncologist about your sexual health

Pyle recommends talking to your oncologist about your sexual health as soon after your diagnosis as possible. You can start a conversation by asking questions like:

  • How will this treatment impact my sexual function?

  • What can I do to support my sexual health during and after treatment?

  • Is there anyone you recommend that I talk to, such as a social worker or sexual health counselor?

Your oncology social worker will also have sexual health resources. 

“They are often connected to other counselors in the community, such as sexual health counselors,” Pyle says.

If you’re reluctant to talk to someone in person, consider visiting a reputable website like the American Cancer Society or National Cancer Institute for more information on sexuality and cancer treatment.

How to improve your sexual health during cancer treatment

“There are medications and therapies that can help improve your sexual health during and after cancer treatment,” says Pyle. “Activities like exercise and meditation can help improve your overall mindset and well-being, which can help support your sexuality.”

Talk to your doctor, social worker and counselor about what’s right for your circumstances.

How to talk to your partner about sexual health during cancer treatment

Communication with your partner is vital, says Pyle.

“Let your partner know how you feel, what works for you and what doesn’t work for you,” she says. “Open communication is so important, even if it’s awkward. Don’t be afraid to say how you really feel and what you’re thinking.”

She also emphasizes that intimacy comes in many forms. It may look like sharing inside jokes and laughing together, snuggling together on the couch while reading or watching a movie, or taking a walk in nature.

“You can find ways to connect with your partner and work through your experience together,” says Pyle. “Having little moments together can help you stay connected.”

If you need help communicating with your partner, consider meeting with a counselor

How to support a loved one during cancer treatment

If your loved one is undergoing cancer treatment, Pyle recommends educating yourself to better understand what they’re going through and what long-term side effects may occur. She also recommends setting realistic expectations.

“Don’t expect everything to go back to normal the day after they finish their treatments,” she says. “It takes time for people to heal after cancer treatment. They may still look like their normal self, but their body is still adjusting after treatment. They’re finding their new normal. It’s all about communication and helping them find their way along this new path.”

Learn more about cancer prevention, wellness and treatment.

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