Managing Treatments

How to Cope With Female Sexual Health Changes From Cancer

Women face sexual health changes after cancer that affect intimacy. Treating cancer side effects and finding new ways to be intimate with your partner can improve your sex life after treatment.

Cancer can put a damper on your sex life both during and after treatment. Some treatments cause side effects in women that alter your sexual health and may make you less interested in having sex for a while. This can put stress on your relationship and make you feel like you’re not getting back to “normal.” Once you realize why this is all happening, there are options to overcome these effects.

How Cancer Affects Your Sexual Health

Make sure you and your partner both know what to expect beyond the usual cancer side effects like nausea and fatigue. Cancer treatment for breast, gynecologic and colorectal cancers can cause changes to your body that make sex different or more difficult than it used to be. Side effects vary depending on your cancer and treatment options, but some things you may experience, according to Mayo Clinic, include:

  • Vaginal dryness
  • Less sexual desire
  • Pain during sex
  • Trouble reaching climax
  • Smaller size of the vagina or more tightness

Feeling fatigued from treatment or stressed out can also make you less likely to get in the mood and more likely to have trouble enjoying intimacy. Immediate effects, such as less desire because of hormone changes, may end when treatment ends. Others, such as dryness caused by surgery or radiation, can be longer lasting.

Treatment for Sexual Side Effects

The first step in dealing with any side effects is to talk about them. Tell your healthcare team what you’re going through, and talk to your partner. This can be a difficult time, and you don’t need to deal with it alone. Your medical team can prescribe solutions or give you guidance on how to cope. Those may include:

  • Hormone therapy. Your changing hormones, from treatment-induced menopause or hysterectomy for example, can cause vaginal dryness, hot flashes, thinning vaginal tissue and pain. You may benefit from hormone therapy with pills or estrogen creams applied to your vagina. Talk to your doctor about your options, as some hormone therapy may be unsafe depending on the type of cancer you have.
  • Lubricants and vaginal moisturizers. Over-the-counter lubricants and vaginal moisturizers are an easy way to combat dryness. Ask your doctor for a recommendation, as some forms can cause burning or irritate already sensitive vaginal tissue. The American Cancer Society recommends using a lubricant before sex even if you use a long-lasting moisturizer regularly.
  • Kegel exercises. Learning to control the pelvic muscles may help you manage pain. If you’re afraid of the pain and tighten these muscles during sex, it can actually make it worse. Learning to relax them can ease penetration. The Mayo Clinic has a guide to help with your form.
  • Vaginal dilator. This tube helps stretch the vagina, which may become tighter after some cancer treatments. Your doctor can show you how to use one.
  • Counseling. Getting support through a group or a counselor may help you overcome emotional barriers that affect intimacy. Many women struggle with body image after breast cancer surgery, for example. Learning to accept yourself and be confident can boost your libido.
  • Find new positions (and ways of being intimate). Sex after cancer is often a learning process for any couple. Try new positions until you find ones that lessen pain. You may need more foreplay to be fully aroused before penetration so sex is more comfortable.

Stay patient with yourself and your partner as you navigate the changes in your body. Look for a provider you feel comfortable talking to about the sexual challenges you have. You may also reach out in support groups or online forums to get advice. Many women have gone through what you’re experiencing.

Looking and feeling your best helps you feel more confident in the bedroom. The Flourish Boutique at the UVA Cancer Center has the items you need to get your groove back.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney