Sexuality and cancer: What to expect

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Sexuality and cancer: What to expect

Going though cancer treatment very likely will result in changes, physically and emotionally. Depending on how the cancer is treated – surgery, chemotherapy, hormone treatment or radiation – often determines what changes will occur. A cancer diagnosis can make a person question everything from what to eat, to keep working or not, or how much sleep they may require. 

One change some cancer patients may not consider is how their diagnosis will affect their sexuality. Sometimes the overwhelming adjustment to being a patient and the uncertainty of your future may make sexual activity the last thing on your question list. 

But once you go home and are alone with your partner, you realize and wonder if having sex is a good idea or not.  You’ve never talked to anyone who’s had cancer to see if their doctor said it was okay to enjoy sex during cancer and cancer treatment.     

Even though physically and mentally there will be times you may not feel much in the mood, maintaining your sex life during cancer is important and can even be considered a type of therapy for the patient.  But for many couples there will be concerns regarding their sexual relationship needing to be addressed with their oncologist.

Can cancer be passed to my partner through sex?

This is a legitimate concern but there are no worries to be had of this.  Cancer cannot be passed through sex and most cancers do not have a link between a person’s sex life and cancer risk.

If you are in a long-term monogamous relationship, you can continue to have the sexual activity you had before the diagnosis as long as you are feeling good.

Will chemotherapy or radiation harm your partner during sex?

The first thing to do is to discuss this with your doctor as some chemo drugs may come out in small amounts in vaginal fluids.  Men should wear a condom during chemo treatment and for about 2 weeks after.

Sex while receiving radiation treatments does not expose your partner to radiation but again, talk to your doctor about any concerns.  If a cancer patient receiving radiation has an implant or is taking a drug that emits radiation, then you must refrain from sexual activity so as not to expose your partner.

Is there any time a person with cancer should not have sex?

Here again, the answer needs to come from your doctor.  However there can be some circumstances when sex may be off limits:

·      After a surgery you need to be careful not to pull stitches that could cause bleeding.  The risk of infection may increase if having sex.

·      If you notice any kind of bleeding in the genital area after sex, contact your doctor about this.

·      Any sign of warts, bumps, sores, or discharge in the genital area needs to be addressed with your doctor.  In the meantime, avoid sex until you get the all clear.

·      Chemotherapy and radiation can weaken your immune system making you more susceptible to infections.  Question your doctor to see if you can engage in intimacy with your partner.

·      One issue that may be a problem is urinary tract infections.  Women should always empty their bladder after sex to rid any germs that could start an infection.  It may be advisable to wash the genital area before and after sex keeping it as clean as possible.  Drinking plenty of fluids is also recommended to help flush out bacteria. 

Can a woman become pregnant during cancer?

The answer to this is yes.  It is also strongly discouraged when undergoing chemotherapy to not become pregnant due to potential harmful effects on the developing baby.  Choose a reliable method of birth control during this time. 

Do you still achieve orgasm having sex during cancer?

The short answer to this is a resounding yes.  There are few cancer treatments that damage the nerves and muscles involved in feeling pleasure and not being able to reach orgasm.  In fact, sexual touching and arousal are very satisfying and necessary for a cancer patient to feel loved, wanted and to boost their self-esteem.  Plus the endorphins released during orgasm are good for reducing stress and pain while leaving a person with a feeling of peacefulness and well-being.

What if desire for sex is not there?

It is not unusual for a man or woman with cancer to lose interest in sexual activity at some point during cancer treatment.  Sex may not be their top priority at the moment and that is okay.  Experiencing nausea, vomiting, pain or fatigue, or depression can cause anyone to not be up to having sex. 

Try simply holding one another, cuddling, stroking, without making the person feel pressured into having sex.

Vaginal dryness due to changes from pelvic surgery, radiation, or early menopause can be a source of pain for women and sexual penetration.  Try lubrications or just manual stimulation of the clitoris to help her achieve pleasure. 

Work through these times being understanding when desire for sex is waning.  Once you feel better and more like yourself gradually ease into sexual activity once again.