Breast Cancer and Your Sex Life

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on March 17, 2023
5 min read

Breast cancer can change a lot about your life, including your sex life.

Physical changes to your body, side effects from treatment, and how you feel about your body and sex all can make intimacy more challenging.

While many people are reluctant to talk about sex, sexual problems in women during or after cancer treatment are very common. In one study, 70% of breast cancer survivors with partners reported sex difficulties.

It’s normal for your sex life to take a back seat while you're having treatment or dealing with changes caused by breast cancer. At the same time, closeness can help you feel better emotionally while you're going through breast cancer.

Fortunately, there are ways to manage symptoms like lack of desire or vaginal dryness and make intimacy enjoyable again.

Here are some common sex problems women with breast cancer have and ways to deal with them:

Physical changes. Surgery or cancer treatment may affect your body and make intimacy feel different. Surgery and cancer treatments sometimes cause pain around your breasts and in other parts of your body. Many women say that things that used to feel good during sex now feel different or painful.

To deal with these changes, get to know your body again. Explore through masturbation or with a partner. Be open about what feels good and what makes you uncomfortable. Remember that your partner may be unsure what to do or afraid of hurting you.

Do whatever you can to make sex more comfortable. You might use pillows for support, try new positions to avoid putting pressure on sore areas, and create an environment that puts you at ease. A vibrator may help if you struggle to reach orgasm.

Lack of desire. The physical and emotional effects of breast cancer and its treatments might make sex the last thing on your mind. Some treatments can bring early menopause and the changes that may come with it, including less desire for sex.

If you want intimacy but have a hard time getting in the mood, start by having an honest discussion with your partner about it. Also tell your doctor. They can give advice about medication side effects like nausea and fatigue that can hurt your sex drive. And they may be able to suggest treatments for lack of desire.

You might also:

  • Exercise. This helps you feel better overall and gives you more energy.
  • Do little things to make yourself feel good. A new haircut or outfit might boost your confidence. Or read a favorite book, chat with a friend, or get a massage.
  • Explore new adventures with your partner, like sex toys or watching a sexy movie.

Vaginal dryness. Lubricants can make sex more enjoyable and comfortable. Experiment by yourself or with your partner to find one that feels good and doesn't cause irritation.

Water-based gels with no perfumes or additives may be best. If you use latex condoms, avoid lubricants with petroleum. They can damage condoms.

Apply the lube around the entrance to your vagina and on your partner’s penis or fingers to make sex more comfortable.

Vaginal moisturizers provide longer-lasting moisture. You usually apply them at bedtime instead of right before sex. Like lubes, they don't require a prescription.

Painful intercourse. Some treatments can lead to pain during sex. Talk to your doctor about what you're feeling, where, and when so they can pinpoint the reason for the pain and offer solutions.

To minimize pain:

  • Always use a lubricant before sex.
  • Try different positions or techniques so you can control the movement.
  • Pelvic therapy or rehabilitation can help you relax your muscles and make sex less painful.

Changes in your appearance. Hair loss, surgical scars, the loss of a breast, and changes in weight due to cancer treatments can all make you feel self-conscious.

Before or during your treatment, ask your doctor about ways to minimize the effects on your looks, energy, and well-being.

When you feel self-conscious, focus on things you like about yourself and your body. It can help to share your feelings with a loved one or close friend who can point out the positive ways others see you. If you feel uncomfortable in the nude, wear lingerie or a bra.

If you continue to struggle, talk to a mental health specialist.

Mood and emotional issues. Depression, negative thoughts, and overwhelming emotions can affect anyone going through a major life change. They can wreak havoc on your self-esteem, relationships, and life.

Support from your partner, friends, and family can help. So can a support group. If your negative feelings last, ask your doctor to recommend a mental health professional.

Regardless of the current state of your sex life, these suggestions may help improve intimacy:

Keep talking to your partner. Your partner may have their own worries about sex but be reluctant to talk to you about them. They might be worried about pressuring you into sex, unsure of how you feel, and confused about where and how to touch you. They could fear your lack of desire is their fault.

When you share your concerns about sex, it could help your partner open up. Talking about it can help you and your partner feel more connected. Together, you can brainstorm ways to improve intimacy and deal with any sexual issues.

For example, you can choose a lubricant or sex toy together, set aside times to connect, focus on foreplay, and try new positions to find one that's comfortable for you.

Initiate other forms of intimacy. Whether you feel ready for sex or not, you can be intimate with your partner in other ways. Hold hands, give and welcome hugs and kisses, and be physically close to each other. This will help you feel more connected and get comfortable again with physical contact.

Join a support group. No one understands what you’re going through better than other breast cancer patients and survivors.

You may feel more comfortable talking about your struggles with people who "get it." It might make you feel better to hear that others are going through similar situations. You can also get suggestions on what has helped others get through similar challenges.

Go at your own pace. You can't solve sex problems overnight. Focus on making small changes over time.

There's no right or wrong time to resume having sex after a breast cancer diagnosis. Some women want to keep having sex during treatment. Others need some time after treatment before even considering intimacy. Do what feels right for you.