Sex After Cancer: How Women Can Restore The Intimacy That Cancer Stole

What was your first thought when you were told you had cancer? Will I live? How will this affect my family? Will things ever be the same? Whatever your reaction, it’s unlikely that your first thought after being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness was, But what about my sex life?

Going through cancer takes mental and physical stamina, and in the midst of chemotherapy, radiation, and surgery, sexual intimacy may not even remotely be an option. But after treatment, when the dust settles and a woman finds herself looking to reconnect with her partner or looking to start a new relationship, there are a host of new questions to answer. A woman’s post-cancer body will have undergone substantial changes; there might be scarring, tenderness, loss of sensation, or pain. Restarting a sex life can feel overwhelming.

The American Cancer Society says that the ability to feel pleasure from physical touch usually continues after cancer treatment, but it may not be as easy as before. Reestablishing sexual intimacy after cancer treatment is possible but takes understanding, patience, and a willingness to embrace new possibilities.

The Challenges of Sex After Cancer

For someone who’s gone through cancer, the initial challenges are obvious. Treatment makes you weak and nauseated, and it may be painful to move around, let alone have someone else touch you.

But there are deeper issues that emerge. A woman may feel like her body has betrayed her and feel disconnected from herself as if she were living in skin she doesn’t recognize. If a woman has lost one or both breasts, she may have trouble feeling attractive or feminine. Looking in the mirror at scars, weight loss, weight gain, or other changes can make a person want to cover up and hide. Some women grow to see their scars as marks of their strength and find beauty in them, but that is usually not an overnight process.

Self-confidence and body-confidence are linked to sexual desire and pleasure, and lack of confidence may rob a woman of the desire for sex or the ability to enjoy it. And if a woman is in a long-term relationship, her partner will experience stress and uncertainty as well.

A study on the spouses of women with recently-diagnosed (within the past 6 months) breast cancer found that the diagnosis put stress on the couples’ physical relationships. The spouses blamed the change in their sex life on changes in physical appearance, surgical scars and tubes, the woman’s self-consciousness, fear of hurting her, and their own concerns about being able to be physically responsive.

So while a woman is recovering from cancer and trying to make peace with the changes it has made in her body, her partner may be struggling as well. Both partners may be unsure and nervous. But problems will only get worse if unaddressed.

Why It’s Important to Keep Trying

Sex releases endorphins and helps you feel close to your partner, and can improve your long-term relationship satisfaction so long as it grows out of love and connection rather than obligation or coercion.

A study on newlyweds found that greater sexual satisfaction led to greater relationship satisfaction over time, but it wasn’t just the act of sex that strengthened the relationship, it was the level of satisfaction that it provided. That satisfaction sprang more from a strong relationship rather than from sexual prowess: good sex leads to a better relationship, and a better relationship leads to better sex. They build off of each other.

In best-case scenarios, cancer strengthens the relationship because of the trials a couple overcomes together, but it can also cause couples to bottle up their emotions and withdraw from each other. The strain of cancer treatment may exacerbate issues that existed before, and this strain will translate to the bedroom. Physical intimacy alone cannot fix a relationship’s challenges.

“NEXT” for how to talk to your doctor about intimacy

Katie Taylor started writing in 5th grade and hasn't stopped since. Her favorite place to pen a phrase is in front of her fireplace with a cup of tea, but she's been known to write in parking lots on the backs of old receipts if necessary. She and her husband live cozily in the Pacific Northwest enjoying rainy days and Netflix.
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