1. Loss of sexual desire
Many women being treated for breast cancer find their desire for sexual contact decreases. Loss of desire can continue for many months after treatment but as time moves on this should start to improve.
Sexual desire is only one of the reasons women choose to be sexually intimate. Other reasons could include showing their partner that they love them, to feel close to or loved by their partner, getting back a sense of normality, to release tension, or to give or receive comfort.
This can change after treatment. You may want less sexual contact because of the side effects of treatment, prolonged fatigue, changes to your body and confidence about how you look, or because you can’t concentrate on anything other than your diagnosis and treatment.
Even if your sexual activity decreased or stopped completely during and after your treatment, you may want to maintain a level of closeness with your partner, if you have one. You may not feel like having sex, but you may be happy holding hands, hugging, kissing or finding your own ways of being intimate. Sexual activity can also include touch and other signs of affection that don’t always lead to oral or full sex, but still result in pleasure.
Taking turns giving each other a massage or taking a bath or shower together can be a way of being intimate. Getting back into sex after treatment can be a gradual process that you take at your own pace.
2. Getting back to sex
When you feel ready to increase or resume sexual activity, you may want to make some time specifically for you and your partner, free from distractions.
It may help to consider what you and your partner now expect from intimacy and sex and explore new ways of sharing sexual pleasure.
Communication with each other at this time is very important. Both of you need the opportunity to talk about how you’re feeling, and to understand one another. It may not always be easy to talk about sex and you may find it easier to talk somewhere you both feel comfortable, perhaps away from the bedroom. Some people recommend getting started by writing down what you like about each other and to practise talking about these positives.
Read some tips for talking to your partner
The effects of your treatment may mean that you need to think about trying different sexual positions. This might be because of pain or discomfort or because you don’t want the focus to be on a particular part of your body. Other side effects of treatment, such as menopausal symptoms, can affect your sex life.
For more information, see our guide to Your body after breast cancer treatment.
Sex and breast cancer treatment
Tips for getting back to sex
- Start afresh
Try not to compare things now to how they were before you were diagnosed with breast cancer. It can take time and patience to adapt to the changes resulting from breast cancer.
- Use lubricants or moisturisers
Using a vaginal lubricant or a vaginal moisturiser on a regular basis will ease vaginal dryness and help prevent pain.
- Explore your body
It can be useful to explore your body on your own first. You may wish to use your fingers or a vibrator. You may find using a vaginal lubricant helpful. This can help you discover what kind of touch is still pleasant or where it is painful.
- Pelvic floor exercises
Doing pelvic floor exercises increases blood flow to the vaginal area, and can heighten sexual feelings and help relax these muscles.
- Don’t rush
Taking things slowly at first may help. Think about what kind of level of intimacy you feel comfortable with and how much energy you have. There may be practical things to consider, such as taking pain relief if necessary.
- Create a relaxed atmosphere
Creating the right mood may help you relax and increase your confidence. Lighting, music or aromatherapy oils can help create a comfortable and sensual atmosphere.
- Wear what makes you comfortable
Some women may feel uncomfortable naked and choose to wear nightwear. Others wear a prosthesis and bra to bed. It’s important to do whatever makes you feel more comfortable and relaxed, even if this makes intimacy or sex less spontaneous.
- Masturbation (touching your body intimately)
Sensual and genital touching, with a partner and on your own, can help remove anxiety associated with sex and can be a helpful starting point for people resuming sexual activity.
If you have a partner you can share your discoveries with them to make sex as fulfilling as possible. If you’re masturbating with your partner, try to start slowly, possibly using a lubricant, without any expectations (it might help to discuss this beforehand). Non-sexual cuddling, taking gradual steps and relearning how to give each other pleasure can help.
3. Changes to your breasts after treatment
If having your breasts stimulated was an important part of your sex life, losing a breast or changes to a breast through surgery and radiotherapy may have a big impact on your sexual satisfaction. You may experience areas of numbness and sensitivity, or loss of sensitivity.
This sense of loss may be shared by your partner if they gained sexual pleasure from the look or feel of your breasts.
How you feel about having your breasts touched after treatment is very personal. You may want your partner to touch the area that was treated, or you may not want any touching at all. Some women don’t want their partner to touch the breast that wasn’t treated if it reminds them of the loss of the other one. Your partner may also feel differently about touching your breasts after treatment.
It may be helpful to tell your partner what sort of touching you want or don’t want. If you find talking about it embarrassing, you could use your hand to guide them. How you feel about having your breasts touched may change over time.
You and your partner may also want to change your focus to other areas of the body to help you feel sexually satisfied. Some women find sex toys, such as vibrators and clitoral stimulators, helpful in finding out more about what gives pleasure (see the tips above).
Find out more about changes to your body after breast cancer treatment.
4. Emotional effects
Breast cancer and its treatments can have a number of emotional effects, such as anxiety, which can also affect sex, intimacy and your relationships.
The following information outlines how anxiety, worries about sex or low mood and depression might affect your sex life, and includes tips on what might help.
Anxiety and worries about sex
Feelings of anxiety are common for many women with breast cancer. Anxiety may be only short term, or may continue for some time after your treatment is over.
If you’re worried about your treatment or the future, you may find it difficult to relax enough to enjoy sex or even think about it.
Tension and anxiety can also reduce a woman’s ability to become aroused and reach orgasm, so you and your partner may want to explore techniques that help you both relax.
You may be worried about initiating physical intimacy, or concerned that your partner no longer finds you attractive. You may be fearful that your relationship can no longer be what it was, or anxious about how to approach new relationships.
All these feelings are normal and it may take time before they lessen or disappear completely. If you have a partner, talking to them about how you feel might ease some of these worries. It may also help to talk to a close friend or family member about the concerns you have.
However, it can sometimes be hard to talk to your partner or family and friends, so you may find it useful to speak to someone who’s not as involved in your life, such as a counsellor. Your GP or breast care nurse should be able to help arrange this for you.
Find out more about managing stress and anxiety
Low mood and depression after a breast cancer diagnosis
Low mood and depression
Depression is common and may occur at different times in a person’s life. Depression is a term used to describe a broad range of feelings, from being low in spirits to having no will to live. Depression can be a normal response to trauma and a way of coping. As you adjust to what has happened, you will hopefully gain energy and you will notice a change in your mood.
Being depressed can mean you lose interest in sex or find it less pleasurable. If your symptoms of depression continue you may need to seek specialist help. Try talking about how you feel with someone in your treatment team or your GP. They may be able to recommend different ways of helping you through this time. Counselling, talking therapies and drug treatments can all be effective in treating depression. However, it’s important to note that some anti-depressant drugs can reduce sexual desire and may also make reaching orgasm more difficult.