Aug 30, 2023
For many newly diagnosed with cancer, changes in sexual health throughout and after treatment can go overlooked in favor of more urgent matters. However, sexual health and pleasure can hugely affect quality of life and relationships over time. Knowing what to expect can help patients prepare for their new reality.
Of course, each patient’s experience will surely differ based on cancer type, treatment plan, and many other factors. Here are some of the most common changes patients see in their sexual health after a cancer diagnosis and how to face them.
Cancers in the pelvic area and the treatments used to target them can physically interfere with sexual activity. Treatments like chemotherapy can cause side effects like erectile dysfunction, loss of libido, and vulvovaginal thinning and dryness. All these symptoms may also pose a challenge for those looking to be intimate.
“It is very common for patients to experience changes in their sensitivity,” says Jennifer Vencill, Ph.D., a Mayo Clinic psychologist. Numbness and neuropathy are both common side effects of surgery that can be disruptive to patients’ ability to reach climax.
Aside from physical barriers, the anxiety surrounding diagnosis and treatment can be exhausting for both patients and their partners. This often leads to decreased arousal. The mental load of cancer and its financial and social implications can be just as harmful to sexual health as the physical symptoms.
Many excellent resources are available to patients; often, all it takes is asking your care team. Medical treatments provided by sexual health specialists are effective in helping with vulvovaginal dryness, sexual pain, erectile concerns, and many other physical symptoms.
For help addressing the mental effects, mental health providers who specialize in sexual health and sex therapy can be life-changing. Many specialize in oncology care and survivorship as well.
According to a Mayo Clinic Blog Post, Regaining Sexual Health After Cancer Treatment, re-exploring one’s body and sexuality can help patients become acquainted with their new sexual needs and boundaries. “Exploration could mean relearning your body sensations and erogenous zones, something that we refer to as body mapping in the sex therapy world,” says Dr. Vencill, “Or it might be getting comfortable in a body that has drastically changed in how it looks or functions. This might mean exploring sexual aids and things that you perhaps previously hadn’t thought about incorporating into your sex life — whether solo or with a partner.”
With preparation and a mindful approach, patients can expect to again find joy in their sexuality and their new normal.
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