Rutgers Cancer Institute of New Jersey
195 Little Albany Street
New Brunswick, NJ 08903-2681
Many people express concern about sexual issues while they are undergoing breast cancer treatment. Understanding that changes will occur will help you handle them as they come up during the course of your treatment.
No matter if you are undergoing treatment for breast cancer or are recently diagnosed, you may want information on sexual issues that you are facing now or that you are concerned about for the future.
One side effect of chemotherapy can be vaginal dryness, the result of early menopause caused by damage to the ovaries. Dryness can make sex painful or difficult. Try using a water-based lubricant without additives that can irritate the vaginal lining, such as perfumes or flavors. Try to avoid gels that contain herbal extracts or gels that create a warming sensation. In some women, they can cause an allergic reaction.
Vaginal moisturizers help retain moisture and proper acid balance. They are used for longer periods of time to help with dryness outside of sexual intercourse. Moisturizers are available without a prescription.
Losing a breast through a mastectomy can considerably impact your sex life. It's okay, even encouraged, to mourn what you lost. The important part of acceptance is the ability to know when to move forward after a period of grieving. During this process, focus your attention on the fact that you survived your cancer and you are better and stronger for it.
Once you adjust to the way you look, take the next step and communicate your feelings with your partner. This is also an important step for your partner to take. If you feel frustrated and angry, try not to use it in a negative manner. It may spark an argument and alienate your partner even more.
If you are feeling self-conscious, it may be tempting to avoid intercourse. If you feel this way, start out slowly. Make time with your partner to share some touch time. This can make you feel closer and help you rebuild your sexual relationship. During this time, clarify to your partner if something hurts. It may be an area that was not sensitive to pain before your surgery.
It is possible that your partner is uncomfortable viewing or touching your scar. Again, communication is important. Don't jump to conclusions. There may be a good reason that has nothing to do with your new look. Your partner may be afraid of hurting you.
Communication and a sense of humor are your best tools for rebuilding your sex life. If you and your partner keep experiencing difficulties, a sex therapist may be able to help you.
Even if you feel entirely comfortable with your sexuality, the thought of sexual intercourse may be the furthest thing from your mind. You may not feel the desire, or you may be experiencing the fatigue that can last long after chemotherapy is over. For whatever reason, the idea of sexual activity may seem daunting.
There are exercises that are aimed at increasing in-the-moment sensation with all-over body sensations. There is no pressure for any genital contact or orgasm until you're ready. Make a date with your partner and take these steps:
The sensations you share might include soft kissing, light touching, or massage—any type of touch that you or your partner enjoys. You may need to try a new way of having sex. Use the time to explore each other and make new connections. These steps may lead you to sexual intercourse and orgasm.
Regardless of all the self-help information about reviving your sex life after breast cancer treatment, do not forget the most important point. If you do not feel like having sex, for whatever length of time, you do not have to.
You can certainly have a loving, deep intimate relationship without a sexually intimate part to it. Keep an open mind and when you're ready, work your way slowly toward sexual intimacy.
American Cancer Society
Breast Cancer Action
Canadian Cancer Society
Women's Health Matters
Body changes and intimacy. National Cancer Institute website. Available at: https://www.cancer.gov/publications/patient-education/life-after-treatment.pdf. Updated May 2014. Accessed May 8, 2017.
Hungr C, Sanchez-Varela V, Bober SL. Self-image and sexuality issues among young women with breast cancer: practical recommendations. Rev Invest Clin. 2017;69(2):114-122.
Sex and the woman with cancer. American Cancer Society website. Available at: https://www.cancer.org/treatment/treatments-and-side-effects/physical-side-effects/fertility-and-sexual-side-effects/sexuality-for-women-with-cancer.html. Accessed May 8, 2017.
Last reviewed May 2017 by Michael Woods, MD, FAAP Last Updated: 5/8/2017