Sex & Cancer Information
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There are three main ways that cancer affects our experience of sex: the location and type of cancer, the impact of its treatments, and effects of any emotional burden on the person with cancer as well as their partner/s. Cancer treatments can affect sexuality in varying ways: erection difficulties, issues with vaginal elasticity and lubrication, “medical menopause” when the gonads are affected, body image, arousal. In fact, loss of libido can be a signal of serious illness, including and beyond cancer. Ill health and sexual problems often go hand in hand.
Although it’s common for people with cancer to experience a decrease in sexual desire, not everyone does. And while discomfort and pain during sex are also common, they don’t happen for everyone every time. Doctors don’t often talk about sex in an upfront way, while patients often don’t know what questions to ask. When people experience a drop in their libido, or sexual energy, they are encouraged to stay as sexually or sensually active as possible. It can help to think differently about libido. Desire can be active, as in our common notion of “sex drive”––but it can also start with a willingness to engage sensually and erotically, where pleasure can happen even if you don’t feel active desire to begin with.
When intercourse isn’t feasible, whether temporarily or permanently, many people assume that their sex lives are over. Even when intercourse is possible, some forms of cancer or cancer treatments can result in pain during orgasm or penetration. One of the most helpful ways for people to overcome sexual difficulties is to find new ways to think about sex. This isn’t limited to cancer, and in fact many people deal with a whole range of health issues by redefining what sex is to them. For example, if penetrative sex isn’t an option, or if intercourse isn’t comfortable or pleasurable, it can be helpful to let go of the idea that sex has to mean penetration. Massage, mutual erotic massage, oral sex, vibrators, anal play (either with penetration or not)––these are all ways that people can enjoy sexual connection. It’s also important to remember that physical touch can be a great way to build connection, enhance intimacy, and express care and love. Even if someone doesn’t feel ready for, or interested in, sex, they might still desire physical touch. Sensate focus exercises, in which one partner touches the other all over their body and listens to feedback about which touches feel the best, can help re-acquaint a person with their sensual self––as can masturbation.
Body shame may have preceded having cancer, or have been caused by it. Distancing from the body in response to shame and shock can cause or worsen sexual problems—we encourage people with cancer to reconnect with their bodies any way that feels good to them, whether or not that experience is erotic.
With all of these possible challenges around sexuality, it’s good to know that there are options. Lubricants can help with many sexual difficulties. If slower arousal is an issue, taking sex more slowly and using a vibrator can help. The products and informational resources we’ve collected in our Sex & Cancer shopping guide can help you with lubrication, arousal, positioning, knowledge, and inspiration. We wish you the best, and much pleasure.
As part of their ongoing partnership with Living Beyond Breast Cancer, CalExotics donates a portion of the proceeds from each sale of their Inspire line of toys to help people whose lives have been impacted by breast cancer. These soft-to-the-touch, pale pink silicone items were designed with cancer survivors in mind and designed in association with LBBC.
Good Vibrations frequently raises funds through our GiVe program to nonprofits that help support cancer activism and research as well as people impacted by the disease. Through the end of 2016 we are supporting the National Breast Cancer Coalition, Planned Parenthood (to which many turn for check-ups and diagnosis), and the Susan F. Smith Center for Women’s Cancers. See Good Vibratons Give Program to donate or learn more.