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Sexual Health after Cancer

Sexual Health after Cancer

9 January 2019

Concerns about sexual health and intimacy is something that comes up a lot with my patients; in fact, over 70% of my patients have discussed sexual issues with me.  Sexual symptoms often slip under the radar of 'important issues' to discuss with your oncologist, but with more cancer survivors than ever (yay!) it is becoming more and more important to chat about it.

Cancer-associated sexual symptoms may be noticeable during treatment, but more commonly they are an ongoing concern - long after the initial treatment is over.  A cancer diagnosis and treatment can have a range of psychological, emotional and physical effects on women and men that may result in changes in sexual function, behaviour and libido. For example, Aromatase Inhibitors or Tamoxifen may interfere with normal hormone balance, while surgery or radiotherapy may damage blood vessels and interfere with function and sensation to affected areas.

Sex is typically the last thing on your mind during cancer treatment, however there may come a time when you feel ready. Both women and men may experience intimacy and relationship struggles after cancer, and the experience varies greatly between individuals.

The most common experiences for women after cancer treatment that I see include:

- Body image concerns
- Emotional issues (eg fear, anxiety, depression)
- Loss of self esteem
- Loss of sex drive (libido)
- Vaginal dryness
- Loss of sexual sensation, lack of pleasure
- Inability to orgasm
- Pain during intercourse
- Fatigue
- Onset of menopause

Men may experience just as many symptoms, including:

- Erectile dysfunction
- Inability to orgasm
- Concerns about sexual performance
- Body image issues
- Emotional issues (eg fear, anxiety, depression)
- Loss of self esteem
- Loss of sex drive (libido)
- Fatigue

This is very common and you don't need to feel ashamed or embarrassed. The first step is communication, and voicing your insecurities and concerns to your Health Practitioner and/or your partner (if you have one) can be very helpful. Here at MIOG we create a safe space for you to address whatever is on your mind, and we can give you strategies on how to discuss sensitive topics with your loved one. 

Sexuality vs intimacy

Intimacy may be a concern during and immediately after cancer treatment, your partner may feel awkward and not know how to approach the topic, and you may feel insecure. If you or your partner are not ready, remember that you don't need to have sex to feel intimate and loved. Gentle touch is very important for the recovery process, and feeling loved and cared for can help with the emotional recovery of yourself and your loved one. A special experience or date, a cuddle on the couch, and kind reassuring words can be just as comforting, relaxing and therapeutic.

Further resources

We may also be able to prescribe complementary therapies and strategies to improve your symptoms and the underlying causes.

At MIOG we have specialist Health Psychologist Jane Fletcher who has extensive experience in psycho-sexual issues associated with a cancer diagnosis. You are more than welcome to make an appointment with her, and she may have a range of tips and strategies to overcome hurdles and assist your self-esteem and feeling more comfortable in your own skin. Jane may also refer to a Sex Therapist for more specific assistance.

MIOG offers individualised care during treatment for patients with cancer, including nutritional, psychology, acupuncture and massage therapies.

Call us for a chat! +61 3 9571 7498 

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About the Author: Tanya Wells

Tanya is our lead clinician here at MIOG. She is a Naturopath with over 15 years experience in Integrative Oncology. She is also an experienced lecturer at tertiary level, and was a tutor for the Faculty of Medicine at Monash University.
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