Cancer can have an impact on just about every aspect of a person’s life but one of the more common long lasting effects of cancer, especially breast cancer, are issues relating to body image, intimacy, and sexual function. This supports the principle that these concerns need to be focused on and the opportunity created to discuss them at any stage of the treatment pathway.
There are many definitions for human sexuality and 1 how we feel about intimacy, sex, sexuality, and sexual relationships depends on a range of issues and it’s important to remember it’s not unusual to have sexual difficulties, even in times of good health and well-being. There are numerous reasons for this and often it can come down to inadequate information and education concerning sexual or reproductive health.
So why is it important to talk about sexuality and intimacy when diagnosed with cancer? It’s because this topic is very often overlooked and not discussed. This can be because it is often felt there are more important things to think about and discuss at this time, such as treatments and treatment schedules. Of course, it’s not going to be the first question someone asks their doctor but it commonly is an issue that comes to the fore at some point during or at the end of treatment. Understanding this will help you feel more confident to know when to talk more about it with someone who can help.
Living with cancer can affect a person’s sexual functioning in various ways, some of these effects may be due to the cancer itself, the treatments, or a person’s sense of self and/or their emotions at the time. Some of the sexual issues people with cancer have to deal with can be relatively minor, but sometimes they are ongoing and can be more serious and importantly, these questions change from the time of diagnosis, through treatment, and then into recovery.
As well as a cancer diagnosis, people may also have other conditions such as depression or hypertension, or they may be trying to manage menopause symptoms and along with this, their partners may be dealing with their own medical, psychological, and sexual issues. In fact, one of the best predictors of sexual concerns after a cancer diagnosis is to look at what a person’s intimate life was like before their diagnosis.
Sometimes, cancer can intensify these issues and while people may have managed different levels of desire before, cancer can complicate things and it can have an impact on both patients and their partners. People often say they experience loss of libido and interestingly, partners can too during this stressful time.
There are many solutions, and often a first step is knowing how to bring the topic up and ask for guidance. All patients should receive information about the possible side effects of the disease and treatment on sexuality and intimacy such as altered physical function and libido; problems regarding fertility; and menopause symptoms. It is, however, a difficult topic to bring up, not only for women but also for health care professionals who are also hesitant to initiate discussion and wait for the patient to voice their concerns –and consequently it often becomes an endless circle of inaction, frustration, and sadness.
It is also very important to acknowledge that these worries are valid regardless of a person’s age, whether or not they are in a relationship, the stage of their disease, and the type of cancer and surgery they are dealing with.
Here are some words you could use to help you bring the topic up.
How to bring up the topic with your health care provider:
“Is it safe to have sex / continue with our normal intimate relationship?”
“I have heard this treatment may affect my relationship with my partner. Can you tell me what might happen?”
“My partner is worried he may hurt me if we have intercourse. Is this something I should be worried about?”
“I don’t feel attractive because of my scars and I’m worried my partner may not find me desirable any more. Can you recommend someone I can talk with about this?”
“I have developed vaginal dryness and its very painful and uncomfortable especially during intercourse – what can you suggest?”
And this may be helpful for health care professionals:
“I always ask how things are going with sexual relationships because it’s really very common to have difficulties after treatment. Is that something you would like to talk about?”
“I’m really pleased to hear the treatment side-effects are settling down. I find for most people at this stage another area of concern may be about intimacy and sexual function. Are there any issues you would like to discuss?”
If connection with a physiotherapist is available to you, their expertise can assist with advice relating to positioning and exercises to help improve pelvic floor strength. A breast care nurse or general practitioner may also be able to provide information regarding the appropriate use of gels and creams – and this is a topic we can provide more information about at another time!
Importantly, be kind to yourself and have realistic expectations.
1 W.H.O. Gender and reproductive rights: sexual health. 2002. who.int/reproductive- Health/gender/sexual_health.html. Accessed May 2007
By Janine Porter-Steele RN PhD and Leonie Young DUniv
This article first appeared in Reach to Recovery’s Bloom magazine, Issue 33 – December 2021.