Your Sex Life After Cancer Treatment

Medically Reviewed by Carol DerSarkissian, MD on January 21, 2022
3 min read

After cancer treatment, your sex life may be a little different than it used to be. You may not be in the mood as often, and physical side effects can leave you feeling self-conscious. For instance, you may lose your hair, or your weight may change. Or you may have trouble controlling your bladder or bowels.

While some effects of cancer treatment go away quickly, others can linger for months or years. If you’ve been treated for prostate cancer, you may find it harder to get or keep an erection. Women who’ve had radiation or hormone therapy may have intense vaginal dryness that makes sex painful.

But there’s no need to swear off sex. It’s still important to feel good about your body and be close to someone you love.

With a little patience, you can make your sex life as satisfying as ever.

Explore other ways to be close to your partner. When you’re not in the mood for sex, you and your partner can still hold hands, kiss, cuddle, or give each other massages. Don’t be afraid to say what does and doesn’t feel good. Sharing your feelings with your partner can help bring you closer.

Have an open mind. If you’re not able to have the type of sex you’re used to, think of different ways you can become aroused. For instance, some women learn they can have an orgasm if a partner gently touches their breasts.

Make yourself comfortable. Women who have vaginal pain or dryness can try using a water- or silicone-based lubricant. You may need to use a lot to notice a difference.

Ask your doctor about a prescription. Some medicines, such as sildenafil (Viagra) and tadalafil (Cialis), get more blood to flow to the penis, making it easier for guys to get and keep an erection. Women with vaginal dryness can take low-dose estrogen as a pill, or use a cream or ring that fits inside the vagina.

Get help from a medical device. A vacuum erection device (VED) helps stiffen your penis when you’re ready for sex, although it won’t help if you have trouble getting in the mood. If a VED doesn’t work, you can talk to your doctor about a penile implant.

Women who have pain during sex can use a plastic tube called a vaginal dilator a few times each week. It gently stretches your vagina and may ease any tightness you feel.

Think about your new normal. During cancer treatment, you may have had a part of your body removed. Be honest with yourself and your partner about how you’d like this area treated. Would you like it gently touched? Not touched at all? Talk about it ahead of time, and you may find it easier to relax during sex.

Depending on the type of cancer you had, your body may also work differently now. For example, some people who’ve had treatment for colorectal cancer may need to wear an ostomy bag, which collects body waste. If so, you can cover it with a special pouch or wear a shirt over it during sex if it makes you self-conscious.

Talk to someone. Your doctor may have some advice you haven’t tried yet. You can also talk to a licensed counselor or sex therapist. You may want to ask your partner to go to a session with you.

Build up your confidence. Focus on the parts of your body that you like. Make time for activities that make you feel happy and confident. The better you feel about yourself, the more you’ll be able to relax and enjoy having sex.