Resources for Patients and their Families

Cancer Intimacy Issues

One may think that sex is the last thing on the mind of a newly diagnosed cancer patient, and while that may be true initially, it is crucial to recognize the important role that sexual intimacy can play in a cancer patient’s healing process. All cancer patients, including those with mesothelioma cancer, should consider the emotional and physical value of remaining intimate with their spouse or loved one following their diagnosis. There are a number of ways to remain intimate besides sexual intercourse, and even those patients that are experiencing a number of physical limitations due to their treatment can find ways to stay close to the one they love.

Sexual Problems Common Among Cancer Patients

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI) the majority of cancer patients will experience some degree of sexual problems following their diagnosis, including erectile dysfunction, body image issues, early menopause, depression, and a general loss of interest in sex. These issues are all very common for people with cancer, and a patient should never feel ashamed if they are experiencing any of the above. Psychologists recommend talking with your spouse or partner if you are dealing with any issues related to sexual intimacy – most partners would be very understanding and accommodating. Honesty is an important key to remaining sexually intimate, especially for someone facing cancer.

The most common problem related to sex that is reported by cancer patients is body image issues. The body of a cancer sufferer endures a lot of turmoil, and they may have scars or bruises, experience weight gain or loss, or lose their hair. Feeling unattractive is the number one reason why cancer patients avoid being sexually intimate. The NCI has some excellent recommendations for individuals who are feeling badly about the way their body has changed since their cancer diagnosis:

  • Mourn the loss of your hair or former body shape: it’s okay to grieve, and it does not make you superficial to do so.
  • Focus on the many ways that your cancer has made you a stronger, more tenacious and courageous person. Those qualities are sexy, and your partner recognizes all of these.
  • Experiment with ways to enhance your new appearance: purchase a wig, try new clothing styles or try new makeup colors.

Changes in Your Sex Life

A cancer patient must make adjustments to every part of their life, and the same goes for their sex life. Depending on the type of cancer a patient has, changes in one’s sex life may be temporary, or more long-term. Regardless, there are ways to get around the new challenges a patient may be facing. Some cancer patients report that they were not anticipating such big changes in their sex life, and so it is important that newly diagnosed patients take the time to understand how cancer may impact their ability and desire to remain intimate with their spouse or partner.

Benefits of Sexual Intimacy for Cancer Patients

A newly diagnosed cancer sufferer may hear from their doctor that it is important to try and proceed with their normal schedule and lifestyle when possible. Maintaining a sense of normalcy helps a patient cope with their diagnosis and their treatment. One way to maintain this normalcy is for a cancer patient to remain sexually intimate with their spouse or partner. Doing so will help the individual feel more normal, and less like a patient. It will provide a temporary escape from the stress of treatment, and will help them remain close, in the emotional and physical sense, to their spouse or partner. Of course, a cancer patient may need to invoke a little creativity when it comes to having sexual intercourse, as they may not be able to have sex the way that they did pre-diagnosis. If a patient is not able to have sexual intercourse, doctors suggest taking time to be intimate in other ways, or simply making the effort to be romantic.

Oncologists are familiar with discussing sexual intimacy following a cancer diagnosis, so patients should not be shy about asking their physician for advice regarding the many ways to remain sexually intimate with their spouse or partner. Many doctors believe that sex can be a powerful healing force, and it is important to consider this.

What’s the best advice for patients with cancer that wish to remain sexually intimate with their partner? Embrace your body, focus on the positives, take time to touch, kiss, and hug, and be open to new ways to be intimate.

It is important to ask your physician if you are healthy enough for sexual activity prior to being intimate. In addition, asking your treatment team to recommend a sexual therapist or other related expert might be helpful. In some cases, counseling as a couple can be extremely beneficial, for not only the patient, but the patient’s spouse or partner as well.

Erectile Dysfunction and Cancer Patients

Experiencing erectile dysfunction, or ED, is not uncommon for male cancer patients. ED is defined as the inability to get and maintain an erection prior to having sexual intercourse. Patients with prostate cancer almost always report ED, but those with other forms of cancer may also experience it. The good news is that there are medicines, surgical procedures and other methods that can address ED and allow a patient to continue being intimate with their partner. It is imperative that male cancer patients who experience ED report their symptoms to their treatment team, as this may be the sign of a serious health problem. However, ED is generally just a short-term side effect attributed to the different types of treatment that a patient is undergoing, and it will go away after treatment has concluded.



American Cancer Society: Life After Cancer Treatment e-after-treatment/page5

Mayo Clinic: Erectile Dysfunction
Maurice, W. L. (2003) Sexual Potentials and Limitations Imposed by Illness, Handbook of Clinical Sexuality for Mental Health Professionals

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