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Sexuality and Cancer

It is perfectly natural for people who have been diagnosed with cancer to be concerned about the effect their illness may have on their interest in intimacy. After a diagnosis, you may temporarily lose interest in intimacy as you focus on understanding and treating cancer. Even after treatment, you may have concerns about the effects of the disease and treatment on your desires and performance.

Without a doubt, one of the most common problems regarding cancer and intimacy is reluctance to talk about it with one’s sexual partner and care team. It is completely normal to worry about cancer’s impact on your sexuality. Don’t be afraid to openly and honestly discuss your concerns with your care team – they are accustomed to addressing these issues every day.

There is one more person with whom you should talk openly: your partner. Share your thoughts, feelings, and any fears you may have regarding sexual dysfunction.

Self-Image, Self-Esteem, and Body Image

Concerns about the impact of cancer and treatment on sexuality are often closely linked to issues of self-image, self-esteem, and body image. Cancer treatment often involves surgery, which can leave scars and cause physical or neurological damage. Radiation treatment, chemotherapy, and immunotherapy can produce side effects such as hair loss and extreme fatigue. These effects and others can strongly influence how a person with cancer feels about his or her body.

There is a lot you can do to support a positive sexual self-image:

  • Remember that disease and treatment may decrease sexual desire, but it is still possible to be intimate with your sexual partner.
  • Explore all the ways to express intimacy beyond intercourse: gentle touching, holding hands, kissing, hugging, and sharing physical and emotional closeness.

To support a positive body image and high self-esteem, follow these suggestions that have helped many people with cancer:

  • It sounds simple, but looking better may help you feel better. Try to maintain the same grooming habits – fashion, hair and skin care, and so on – as you did before your diagnosis.
  • Plan special activities for the days when you are feeling well and those when you are not. Acknowledge that cancer and treatment can cause shifts in mood.
  • Enjoy the days when you are feeling well. On those days that are difficult, keep a positive outlook – plan all you would like to do as soon as you feel better.
  • If you need help with clothes and hair and other aspects of your appearance, do not hesitate to ask for it. For example, the Look Good... Feel Better® program (1-800-395-LOOK or www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org) offered through the American Cancer Society can help.

Rely on your family, friends, and care team for support as you work through your concerns about sexuality and self-image. The American Cancer Society also offers helpful publications on this subject. You are never alone in your fight against every aspect of cancer. Turn to the many people who want to help.