Tips for Intimacy and Sex Life During Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatment is a physical and emotional experience that can impact a person sexually in multiple ways. The effects differ for each person, depending on the type of cancer they have and the treatment they receive. Having sex during treatment is generally safe. However, extra precautions may need to be taken to prevent infections and pregnancy.

Key takeaways:
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    It is generally safe to have sex while receiving cancer treatment, but precautions such as condoms and contraception will need to be taken to reduce the risks of sexually transmitted infections and pregnancy.
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    Cancer treatment has many adverse effects on a person's sexual functioning, as it can cause erectile dysfunction, vaginal dryness, fatigue, loss of sexual desire and arousal, and anxiety and depression.
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    Those looking to be intimate during their treatment should take their time, start slow, and be open to finding new ways of sexual pleasure.

Is it safe to have sex during cancer treatment?

The effects of cancer treatment are highly personal and different for each person, depending on the type of cancer they have and the treatment they are receiving. Changes to the body, including scars, fatigue, drainage tubes, and hair loss, can affect how a person feels about their body image, which may cause a loss of desire. Although many people may experience changes in their sexual desire, others may not and may wonder if it is safe to engage in sex during this time.

Sexual intimacy can increase a person's overall well-being, which can be beneficial during cancer treatment. Research has found that it is generally safe to have sex while receiving treatment. Still, several precautions must be taken to avoid infection, pregnancy, and potential chemotherapy exposure to a partner through semen or vaginal fluids. Certain types of cancer, such as gynecological, genital, or rectum, may need extra time for the body to heal before commencing sexual activity. It is always best to consult with a health care professional to decide when it is ok to begin different sexual activities, such as intercourse.

Preventing infections

Cancer treatment can weaken a person's immune system during and after treatment, making it harder for the body to fight off infections. Certain cancer treatments cause a person's blood cell rate to lower, putting people at further risk of infection. Therefore it is important to prevent infections commonly associated with sex, like sexually transmitted infections and urinary tract infections.

To prevent these types of infections, always use barrier protection, such as a condom or dental dam, when engaging in any type of sexual activity, including oral sex. If using sex toys, it is essential to wash them with warm water and anti-bacterial soap before and after each use. To prevent urinary tract infections, remember to pee after sex, particularly for people with vaginas.

Preventing pregnancy

Getting pregnant during cancer treatment and for some time after treatment should be avoided, as treatments such as radiation and chemotherapy can cause congenital disabilities. Therefore a person capable of getting pregnant must prevent pregnancy during this time with a highly effective form of contraception such as an IUD.

Cancer treatment can also affect fertility, so many people choose to speak with a fertility specialist to have their eggs or sperm frozen if they wish to have children in the future.

People looking to get pregnant after their cancer treatment should speak to a healthcare professional to see if it is safe.

Protecting your partner

Research is still unable to determine if chemotherapy can be transmitted to a partner sexually through semen or vagina fluids. Therefore, some healthcare professionals recommend using a barrier method, such as a condom or dental dam, during treatment to minimize the risk.

How does cancer treatment affect sexual functioning?

Cancer treatment can affect sexual functioning in various ways depending on the type of cancer and treatment.

Changes for men

Erectile dysfunction: from damage to the nerves surrounding the penis.

Loss of desire and arousal: from pain, fatigue, and hormone imbalance.

Fatigue: from cancer and treatment.

Body image issues: from scaring, loss of weight, loss of hair, removal of body parts, or colostomy bags.

Anxiety and depression: from loss of fertility, the stress of treatment, financial stress, or hormone changes.

Changes for women

Vaginal dryness: from breast cancer treatment.

Loss of desire and arousal: from pain, fatigue, and hormone imbalance.

Fatigue: from cancer and treatment.

Body image issues: from scaring, loss of weight, removal of body parts, or colostomy bags.

Loss of femininity: from loss of hair or removal of breasts or uterus.

Anxiety and depression: from loss of fertility, the stress of treatment, financial stress, or hormone changes.

How to stay intimate during cancer treatment

Take your time

Cancer and its treatment are both physically and mentally taxing. Some people may feel the need for physical intimacy during cancer treatment, while others will not. Others may experience sexual desire or no pain associated with sex, while others will not. The treatment process is different for everyone, so give yourself permission to take the time you need to rest and recover.

Communicate your needs with your partner

It is essential to communicate with your partner during this time. Discuss with them any fears that you may have about sex and discuss which forms of intimacy could feel pleasurable for you. It is also important to understand how your partner is feeling during this process, as it is common for partners not to want to engage in sex with their partners for fear of hurting them.

Explore your body

Cancer treatment can change the way a person feels about their body, as well as the way they feel pleasure. Therefore, exploring your body on your own can be a great way to help you find out what feels good and what doesn't. If you have a partner, you can then communicate this to them.

Reframe sex

Certain positions or types of sex may not be possible or feel less pleasurable during or after cancer treatment, but this doesn't mean that sex cannot be enjoyable. Try out different positions or different types of sexual activity, like oral sex instead of penetration.

Start slow

Gradually build your way up to sex. You might want to start with sensual hugs or a massage and slowly make your way up after time.

Get help

If you, or your partner are distressed about cancer treatment, or the effects it has had on your body or sexually, it is best to seek help from a mental health professional.

Cancer treatment can be both physically and mentally draining and causes many sexual side effects. While it is generally safe to have sex while undergoing cancer treatment, precautions must be taken to keep a person from developing an infection. Those looking to be intimate with their partner during cancer treatment should communicate their needs to their partner and explore different types of sex that feel pleasurable for them during their treatment.

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