A Cancer Diagnosis Doesn't Necessarily Mean an End to Sex

A Cancer Diagnosis Doesn't Necessarily Mean an End to Sex

With increasing rates of survivorship after a cancer diagnosis, the focus is now on people regaining their quality of life, rather than just being alive at all. The common theme is “living until you die” – i.e. participating fully in life, and not giving up what’s important just to be alive.

Importance of Sexual Health & Pleasure 

Until fairly recently, the importance of sexual health and pleasure in a person’s quality of life was overlooked by healthcare professionals working with cancer patients. For example, a study in 2003 noted that:

Although most healthcare professionals thought that the majority of women with ovarian cancer would experience a sexual problem, only a quarter of doctors and a fifth of nurses actually discussed sexual issues with the women.

Thankfully, times are changing and it is now a “valid” area for research and therapy.

beast cancer public art
Image: Steve Snodgrass via Flickr

Treatment for Post-Cancer Sexual Difficulties

A prominent researcher and sex therapist in this area is Dr. Lori Brotto. She is currently evaluating an online treatment module that she has developed for men and women who are experiencing sexual difficulties post-cancer. It is based on mindfulness exercises as well as education about how the body works, with some exploration of each participant’s sexual experiences and beliefs. Once all that work is done, it moves onto encouraging the (re)discovery of sexual play. This includes encouragement to try sexual aids, if only for the remainder of the therapy course.

Side Effects: Sex and Cancer Diagnosis or Treatment

One area of sexual dysfunction in women who have had a diagnosis of a pelvic cancer is the involuntary tightening of the vagina – or even the entire pelvic floor– leading to pain during penetration. Vaginismus (making intercourse impossible) and/or pain at orgasm can also occur.

It seems that the majority of women who experience this will suffer in silence.

And even if they do mention it to their doctor, most general practitioners are not even aware of this possible side-effect of the cancer diagnosis or treatment. This is sad, as this can be treated with a mixture of psychotherapy and pelvic floor physical therapy.

Physical Therapy

Physical Therapy uses a mixture of biofeedback and visualization, as well as massage, to show women how to relax pelvic floor muscles, and how to make the pain vanish.

Part of this may include teaching women how to react to pain – to go towards it, accepting it, rather than to recoil from it. This is similar to Lori Brotto’s approach of mindfulness in the management of vaginal pain – just to focus on what is actually happening, without giving it a label or making any judgments about it.

“Pain” is just a neural sensation, rather than being a truly frightening event that needs to feel like a catastrophic situation.

The physical therapy can help a woman notice that the pain she experiences may actually disappear when she learns to relax her pelvic floor. This can then open the way to developing relaxation strategies to calm the anxiety of anticipating pain prior to intercourse.

Learning to Feel Pleasure Again After Cancer

The tales of 2 women

"When it came to intimacy with my partner after my cancer treatment was finished, lubrication wasn’t a problem – but my pelvic floor muscles were too tight to allow intercourse. This was a reaction of my body to the pelvic cancer, and so I needed to go through a course of physical therapy to “retrain” my pelvic floor to allow penetration during lovemaking. Part of this physical therapy required the use of vaginal dilators to stretch 'my parts' back out. I used Pre-Seed to lubricate the dilators during the physical therapy. I loved that the Pre-Seed felt like 'natural' lubrication, which made a very clinical process much more relaxing, leading to a successful outcome. Thank you for helping me find the joy in being intimate again!"

It blesses me that the mild lubricant I invented for making babies is also acting to make sex better for women after cancer.

"I am a cancer survivor twice over so I had chemo and radiation twice! Going through this has made me very dry, plus getting older has made a difference too. I tried Pre-Seed and it felt warm and soothing inside my vagina. I also found using it very erotic and it made a positive difference in my achieving an orgasm. It is part of my enjoying making love with my husband again!"

If you know a woman recovering from pelvic cancer, talk about sex. Many doctors don’t and many women won’t realize there are answers beyond just being grateful that they are still alive.

- Dr. E

Science can help us nurture and enjoy our sexual selves. 


In order to comment on BlogHer.com, you'll need to be logged in. You'll be given the option to log in or create an account when you publish your comment. If you do not log in or create an account, your comment will not be displayed.