For anyone being given the diagnosis of cancer, it’s a major blow. Whether you’re undergoing treatment or have completed treatment and are trying to figure out the new normal, a fundamental part of life that is almost always overlooked by those caring for us is sexual health. With the diagnosis and treatment for cancer comes changes in our bodies, as well as how we feel about our bodies, and that means that our experience of sex is highly likely to change as well. Diagnosis and treatment can affect the physical, leading to emotional repercussions for the individual and often their partner. Treatment for any form of cancer can damage the blood flow and nerve endings that play a central role in physical arousal, change our bodies, affect our libido, ability to climax, and fertility. Not feeling like sex or being able to get aroused, or feeling anxious you may not be able to, can actually lead to not getting aroused or reaching orgasm; which ultimately can cause you to avoid sex all together!

Overall, the effect on your sexual functioning will depend on several factors, such as any previous sexual dysfunctions, type of treatment needed, your age etc. However, there are some things that anyone can and should be doing to ensure recovery if they are diagnosed. So what should you do if you’ve been diagnosed?

Talk about it, and always ask questions:

Couples who talk about their sex life have been found to have more sex, and talking about it means you’ll be more comfortable to share your concerns with your partner if you are diagnosed with cancer. It’s absolutely imperative that you not shy away from any questions about your sexual functioning with any doctor. Ask any and all questions – there is nothing that they haven’t heard before or can’t explore with you. It’s also a foundation to keeping the conversation open in your relationship, which often gets impacted by the experiences and side effects associated with such a diagnosis. 

Use it or lose it:

‘on-demand’ sexual functioning is actually much easier if you are sexually active (either alone or with partners). The more you have sex, the more easily you’ll be able to have sex and the more you’ll feel like sex. You don’t always have to have full-blown intercourse! You can touch, kiss, stroke and create sexual intimacy and emotional connection through acts that don’t involve penetration or too much hard work. It’s crucial though to talk to your doctor about when and how you can attempt and resume sexual activity following treatment.

Practice mindfulness: 

Mindfulness is considered any conscious activity that brings your awareness into the present moment, with no judgement, curiosity and openness to one’s experience. What this means is that you are paying attention to exactly what you are experiencing right now, without thinking about what it could mean or might have meant. It has been found to improve cognitive functioning when undergoing chemotherapy and assists with one’s coping skills in relation to negative thoughts, bodily sensations and feelings (Johns et al,. 2015).

Mindfulness helps to decrease distressing emotions (such as anxiety or anger). Staying in the moment is not easy, especially when you’re trying to adjust to changes in your body caused treatment. By implementing mindfulness as a daily practice, the positive impact is evident in numerous areas of our lives, not just sex and intimacy. The fatigue, sleep disruption and low mood that is often associated with recovery has also been found to improve when mindfulness is employed (Johns et al., 2015). Many survivors’ quality of life is impacted greatly by fatigue, as this in particular can affect our desire and interest in sex. It also interfers with our readiness for sex and our ability to enjoy a sexual experience.