Sex isn’t exactly a topic we’re used to openly discussing with others — even with those closest to us. Neither is the embarrassment, shame, or even guilt that sex after cancer may bring up.
Thoughts like, “I know I should just be grateful I’m alive” and “What If I can’t perform anymore?” are more common than we acknowledge.
Regardless of whether you’re single, dating, or in a relationship, you may be finding it more challenging to get “in the mood.” So how can you get the spark back after cancer?
Here are three ways to ease back in after a dry spell.
How to Restore Intimacy After a Cancer Diagnosis
If you’re living with cancer, it’s essential to remember that having a healthy sex life is still possible. While cancer and treatment side effects may cause changes in your body — both emotionally and physically — there are solutions to many challenges if you’re able to acknowledge them and bring them up with your care team.
1. Understand Your Libido
Your libido — or sexual desire — ebbs and flows throughout your life. And during or after cancer treatment it’s normal to have a lower sex drive.
If it’s been a while since you’ve been sexually active, you may feel mounting pressure to perform or please. This stress only adds to the physical difficulties of getting aroused.
Your desire may also be affected by:
- Changes to your physical appearance. Scars, hair loss, and weight fluctuations may cause you to feel differently about your body. Fear of rejection may also play into your willingness to be open and vulnerable in the bedroom.
- Pain from your cancer or treatment or the physical act of sex can make it difficult and uncomfortable to be intimate.
- Hormonal changes can cause hot flashes and vaginal dryness.
- Nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, fatigue, and other uncomfortable side effects can affect your ability to enjoy sex or desire intimacy.
Pinpointing specific issues that may be affecting your ability to feel turned on is the first step in overcoming them.
2. Rediscover Your Desires
Post-treatment, you may not be turned on by the same things or enjoy sex like before. As a result, it’s a good idea to resume sex more gradually, allowing you to figure out what feels good.
If you’re comfortable with masturbation, try touching yourself in private to find out what kinds of touch still feel good, whether you have tender spots you want your partner to avoid, and how easy it is to reach orgasm. In some ways, you’re learning your own body all over again.
Communicate with Your Doctor
Know that your change in sexual desire during and after treatment is normal. Even if your oncologist doesn’t bring this up, you should feel free to take the time and space to discuss your feelings and experiences with them. If they’re unable or unwilling to have this conversation, the Iris Care Team or a sexual health specialist can support you.
Communicate with Your Partner
The conversation with your oncologist isn’t the only important one to have. When there’s been a dry spell, sometimes a partner can feel rejected or no longer desirable. Openly communicating with your partner will help them understand your willingness to enjoy sex again, but also any pain or insecurities that may be getting in the way.
Try these tips for better communication about your sex life:
- It’s easier to ask for changes in your sex life when you’re not in the act. Find a private time and place to discuss this outside of the bedroom.
- Start by complimenting your partner — tell them what you do like or praise their sexual attractiveness or skills. Do your best to focus on the positive to avoid feeling helpless or resentful.
- Don’t assume your partner feels a certain way about how you look. Listen, without judging, when your partner gives you feedback about sex or their desire for you.
- Compromise on what feels good for both of you. If that’s impossible, or one or both of you struggle with how surgical scars, mastectomy, or ostomy appliances affect your sex life, consider counseling to help find the middle ground.
- Remember that this isn’t a one-time conversation. Your sexual needs will continue to change over time, so stay communicative as they do.
3. Reintroduce Physical Contact
When you’re focused on being intimate again after some time, it’s important to remember that sex should be enjoyable.
Because you may not be turned on by the same things you once were, try switching up the routine. Try having sex in a different place than usual or make the setting more special by using soft lighting, putting on music, or massaging each other.
An orgasm doesn’t need to be the measure of success for the first time or any sexual experience.
If you find your libido is low and need a little help tapping into your desire, consider:
- Timing sex prior to treatment when you know you’ll have more energy.
- Deep breathing or meditation to get into a more relaxed state.
- Practicing Kegel exercises to strengthen your pelvic floor muscles.
- Taking a short walk to increase your energy and mood.
- Using vaginal creams, lubricants, and sexual aids (such as vibrators).
Even if you’re not quite ready to jump back in the saddle with your partner again, there are plenty of options to bring back some much-needed intimacy. Giving and receiving unexpected compliments, clearing the schedule for a day together, or taking a shower or bath together are all ways to get closer.
The process of reconnecting with your body and your partner can take time. Give yourself permission to approach this practice with curiosity and compassion.
And remember, have fun with it!
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Reviewed by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board
This article meets Iris standards for medical accuracy. It has been fact-checked by the Iris Clinical Editorial Board, our team of oncology experts who ensure that the content is evidence based and up to date. The Iris Clinical Editorial Board includes board-certified oncologists and pharmacists, psychologists, advanced practice providers, licensed clinical social workers, oncology-certified nurses, and dietitians.