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Sexuality, intimacy and cancer

Having cancer doesn’t mean you are no longer a sexual person. However, treatment such as surgery, chemotherapy and radiotherapy can affect your sexuality. This includes your interest in sex, your ability to give or receive sexual pleasure, how you see yourself and how you think others see you. Some of these effects are temporary while others are permanent. All can be managed or controlled.

As individuals, people not only have different ways of expressing and defining sexuality and intimacy, but they also place their own importance on these needs.

Some people may feel an increased need for sexual and intimate contact for reassurance. Some may be less interested in intimacy and sex, or feel that these things are temporarily less important. Others may feel too tired or sick to want sex, or feel they are less sexually attractive to their partner because of changes that cancer and its treatment have caused to their body.

If you are concerned about changes to your sex life, it is important to talk to your partner. He or she may feel that, if they raise the topic, they might place too great a demand on you or might make you feel guilty.

You can also talk to your health care team about the potential challenges you may face having vulval cancer. Knowing what changes may occur, and addressing them if they affect you personally, will help you overcome or adjust to the changes.

After surgery

Most women feel shocked and upset by the idea of having treatment to one of the most intimate and private parts of their body. You may experience a wide variety of emotions, including anger, fear and resentment, all of which are normal.

When these feelings are combined with the physical effects of treatment, you may find the closeness of your relationship with your partner is affected. It may also take time to feel interested in and comfortable during sexual intimacy.

Sharing your feelings can help bring you and your partner closer together. You may also find it reassuring to talk to another woman who has been through the same experience.

Physical changes

Women who have had vulval surgery have different feelings about looking at the vulva afterwards. Some women don’t want to look at the area. Others want a nurse to be with them when they look for the first time. A nurse can explain what has happened to the area and can offer professional support and advice.

Some women prefer to look alone or with a partner, friend or relative. Whoever you choose, make sure it is someone you trust and can talk to openly about your feelings.

If you decide to look at the vulval area, it is natural to feel shocked by the changes. If the labia have been removed, you will be able to see the opening to the vagina much more clearly. If the clitoris has been removed, there will now be an area of flat skin without the usual folds of the vulva.

Taking your time

Although the area of the operation usually heals within about six weeks, the emotional effects will probably take much longer to deal with and require gentleness and sensitivity from yourself and the people close to you.

It may take some months before you begin to enjoy sexual activity again. Don’t be surprised if you feel very unsure about it. Remember that you need to make yourself and your healing a priority. Allow yourself to say no to any kind of sexual contact that does not feel right.

Physical problems

People’s sex lives often change during and after cancer treatment. You may find that your interest in sex is diminished and you may also experience some physical sexual problems.

Sometimes surgery causes scar tissue to form around the outside of the vagina, narrowing the entrance to it. Radiotherapy can cause scarring and narrowing of the vagina itself. Both situations may produce pain during intercourse, but using plenty of lubricant and trying different sexual positions can help. Water-based and non-perfumed lubricants are best.

Using a vaginal moisturiser two to three times a week may also be beneficial. A hormone cream can also help keep vaginal tissue supple and lubricated. These creams are available on prescription from your doctor.

If you don’t feel like having sex, or you find penetration uncomfortable, let your partner know.

If pain is a problem for you, plan sexual activity for the time of day when your pain is lowest. If you are using pain medication, take it shortly before sex so it will be in full effect during lovemaking. Use positions that put minimal pressure on the painful areas of your body and allow you to control the depth of penetration. Learn relaxation techniques to help stop the muscles tensing up.

If it is still too painful, talk to your doctor. The Cancer Council Helpline (13 11 20) can also let you know where you can get help and support for this problem.

Effect on orgasms

You may also worry that if your clitoris has been removed, you won’t be able to have an orgasm. This is not necessarily the case, but you may need to take time to explore different ways to climax. There are many other parts of your body that, when caressed, can increase sexual excitement and lead to orgasm. The breasts, inner thighs, feet and buttocks are all very sensitive areas of the body.

You and your partner can still be intimate without trying to have intercourse or reaching an orgasm. Sharing your feelings for each other in intimate ways such as cuddling, kissing, stroking and massage can often be as satisfying as full penetration and climax.


  • Think about pleasurable sexual experiences, watch romantic or erotic DVDs, or read sexy literature to stimulate you.
  • Guide your partner’s hands or fingers to areas that arouse you.
  • Consider using an electric vibrator to give you extra stimulation to help you reach orgasm.
  • Focus on your breathing to help you relax and on the pleasure of the whole experience.
  • Tighten and relax your vaginal muscles in time with your breathing during penetration or while your sensitive areas are being stroked.

Your doctor or nurse may be able to discuss this with you. You may also wish to speak to a sex therapist or counsellor experienced in this area.

Regaining sexual confidence

For most women sex is more than arousal, intercourse and orgasms. It involves feelings about intimacy and acceptance, as well as being able to give and receive love.

If we are not comfortable with the way we feel about our bodies, this may affect our confidence and desire for sex.

Some women worry about being rejected by their partner, or any new partner, because of changes to their body, whether these changes are visible or not.

It is sometimes difficult to communicate sexual needs, fears or worries with your partner in an intimate relationship. After treatment to the vulva, you may find it even more difficult, but you may be surprised and encouraged by the amount of tolerance, trust, tenderness and love that exists between you.

However, problems can arise because of misunderstandings, differing expectations, and different ways of adapting to changes to your sex life. If this happens, you may find counselling helpful, either with your partner or on your own. You may be able to work through these challenges towards a new closeness and understanding.