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Arousal after cervical cancer

Arousal describes the mental and physical sensations of sexual excitement experienced before and during sexual activity. Many people will have difficulty becoming aroused at certain points in their life, whether or not they have had cancer. 

We know that recovering from a cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment can have an impact, both physically and emotionally, on whether you can become aroused  . We hope this information helps explain why arousal may be more difficult and ways you can manage that. If you have a partner, you may find it helpful to read this page together or separately. 

On this page:

About arousal

Arousal is typically associated with wetness or vaginal lubrication. It could also involve a faster heart rate, enlarged breasts and erect nipples, emotional anticipation, and a rush of blood to the genitals which causes the vulva to swell and tingle. The vulva is made up of the genitals on the outside of the body, including the clitoris, vaginal opening and labia.

Arousal is different for everyone and can be triggered in different ways. These might include:

  • visual or audio cues in something you’ve read, watched, listened to or imagined
  • a certain smell or taste
  • being touched in particularly sensitive areas, like the neck, ears or lower back – known as erogenous zones.

In some cases, there might be a mismatch between your mental and physical arousal. You might feel aroused mentally, but find that your body doesn’t respond – or it might be the other way around. Equally, you might feel a desire to be sexual, but not experience any physical or mental arousal, or you may struggle to stay aroused throughout sexual activity.

Like your sex drive, arousal can be affected by both physical and psychological factors. 

Read about sex drive and cervical cancer >

Effects of treatment on arousal

The physical impact of cervical cancer treatment on arousal will vary, depending on the type of treatment you have had. You may not experience many changes to the way your body reacts to sexual stimulation, or there may be a bigger impact.

Some treatments can cause damage to the nervous system  , reducing sexual arousal and lubrication, while removal of your cervix, uterus or the upper part of your vagina may alter how you experience physical sensations and genital arousal.

LLETZ and cone biopsy

Large loop excision of the transformation zone (LLETZ) and cone biopsy are the smallest surgeries to treat cervical cancer. So these surgeries should have less impact on your sex life  . However, we do know that women and people with a cervix who have these treatments can experience effects on their sex life. This may be for a short time after treatment or sometimes for the long term. 

Read about LLETZ and changes to sex life > 

Trachelectomy, hysterectomy and pelvic exenteration

More radical treatments will naturally have more of a physical and emotional impact. These treatments include: 

  • trachelectomy – removal of the cervix and upper part of the vagina 
  • hysterectomy – removal of the uterus and cervix 
  • pelvic exenteration – major surgery removing some or all pelvic organs. 

Research suggests many women and people with a cervix who have a trachelectomy or hysterectomy will not experience a big change to their sex life. Pelvic exenteration is proven to have a large impact on sex life. However, we know from talking to and surveying our community that all of these surgeries can have an impact. Whichever you have had, it’s important to seek help if changes are affecting you.

If the ovaries were removed during hysterectomy or pelvic exenteration, you will go through menopause. Lower oestrogen levels can cause vaginal dryness, reduced lubrication, and slow down your sexual response. All of these things can make it harder to become physically aroused.

We have more information about each of these surgeries and their impact:

Radiotherapy and brachytherapy

Radiotherapy can also cause changes to the vagina. These include:

  • vaginal atrophy – where the vaginal tissue becomes thinner, dryer and less stretchy 
  • vaginal stenosis – where the vagina becomes shorter and narrower, sometimes causing the walls of the vagina to stick together. 

Both of these can affect your physical arousal. It can be harder for blood to flow to your vagina and reduce lubrication, which can make sex uncomfortable or painful.

Radiotherapy and brachytherapy also usually cause menopause, which again means hormonal changes can make it more difficult to become aroused. 

Read about radiotherapy and brachytherapy >

Psychological impact of treatment

The psychological effects of treatment can also make it harder to feel aroused. By this, we mean the impact on your thoughts and feelings. If you’re struggling with stress, anxiety, and other negative feelings about your body image, relationship or sexuality, this can understandably make it more difficult to feel aroused, no matter how much you might want to.

Managing loss of arousal

If you are struggling with loss of arousal, there are some practical things you can do that might help. 

Get expert support

It’s important to seek help from your clinical nurse specialist (CNS), GP or a psychosexual therapist. These experts can assess any issues, help you to identify what might be causing them and, if needed, refer you to the right specialist. Arousal is a complex interaction between your mind, body and emotions, so understanding what’s changed for you can help you to get to the root of the issue and start dealing with it.

Use lubricant

Lubricants, vaginal moisturisers and topical oestrogen creams or gels may help with the immediate physical issues like dryness and a lack of lubrication. It is best to use a water-based lubricant without any perfumes or flavourings. Avoid using petroleum jelly or oil-based lubricants, as these can irritate the genitals and can increase the risk of yeast infections. 

Processing your thoughts and feelings

Learning mindfulness exercises and communicating openly with your partner can help to reduce any psychological barriers. Remember that there’s no rush to get back to ‘normal’. 

Explore other ways to be intimate

Try to take some of the pressure off yourself, and focus on exploring new, safe and comfortable forms of intimacy and pleasure – whatever that looks like for you. Our section on sex drive contains tips for building intimacy without sexual intercourse, which may also help you to feel more aroused. These include:

  • spending time holding hands, kissing and cuddling
  • massages
  • taking a bath or shower together
  • intimate touching or oral sex. 

Read more about sex drive after cervical cancer >

More information and support

Sexual problems are common among everyone, but a cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment can create or heighten any issues. We know talking about sex can be difficult, but you deserve to get help and feel better about that part of your life. It’s worth having a conversation with your GP or healthcare team at the hospital, who can assess what’s going on and may refer you to a specialist. We also have more information about changes to your sex life that might be useful, including suggestions for where to get support.

Read more about sex after cervical cancer >

If you are not sure where to turn, you can give our free Helpline a call on 0808 802 8000. Our trained volunteers can talk through your options or simply listen to what’s going on.

Check the opening hours >

Sometimes connecting with others who have gone through a similar experience can be helpful. Our online Forum lets our community give and get support. It even has a section dedicated to relationships. You can read through the messages or post your own – whichever feels most comfortable.

Join our Forum >

If you have general questions about sex after cervical cancer, our panel of medical experts may be able to help. They can’t give you answers about your individual situation or health – it’s best to speak with your GP or healthcare team for that.

Use our Ask the Expert service > 

Thank you to all the experts who checked the accuracy of this information, and the volunteers who shared their personal experience to help us develop it. 

References

  • Sparić, R. et al (2018). Psychosexual outcomes in women of reproductive age at more than two-years from excisional cervical treatment – a cross-sectional study. Journal of Psychosomatic Obstetrics & Gynecology. 40;2. pp.128-137.
  • Plotti, F. et al (2018). Assessment of Quality of Life and Urinary and Sexual Function After Radical Hysterectomy in Long-Term Cervical Cancer Survivors. International Journal of Gynecological Cancer. 28;4. pp. 818-823.
  • Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust (2017). Long term consequences of cervical cancer and its treatment. Web: www.jostrust.org.uk/sites/default/files/final_ltccc_2017_report.pdf. Accessed October 2020.
  • Pfaendler, K. et al (2015). Cervical Cancer Survivorship: Long-term Quality of Life and Social Support. Clinical Therapeutics. 37;1. pp.39-48.
  • Kokcu, A. et al (2015). Does Surgical Menopause Affect Sexual Performance Differently from Natural Menopause? The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 12;6. pp.1407-1414.
  • Lammerink, E. et al (2012). Sexual functioning of cervical cancer survivors: A review with a female perspective. Maturitas. 72;4. pp.296-304.

We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]

Read more about how we research and write our information >

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Date last updated: 
28 Oct 2020
Date due for review: 
28 Oct 2023
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