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A cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment can have a big impact on your desire to have sex or be intimate. Sexual desire is also known as sex drive or libido and describes your interest in having sexual contact. In this information, we use the term sex drive.
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Everyone’s sex drive varies, even without a cancer diagnosis. There’s no such thing as ‘normal’ in terms of how much sex you have or how often you want to have it. Some people will have naturally higher or lower sex drives than others. Equally, a sex drive isn’t essential to a satisfying sex life – people with little or no sex drive may still be aroused by masturbation, by their partner initiating contact, or have successful relationships with no sex.
You might have noticed that your own sex drive fluctuates depending on your mood, how long you’ve been in a relationship, and, if you have regular periods, where you are in your cycle . Stress, tiredness, alcohol and relationship problems can all affect your libido, as well as some hormonal contraception and certain medications .
Your interest in sex may also be different depending on where you are with cervical cancer. At certain points, you may have wanted to be more intimate. This may have been the case after diagnosis, when being physically close to a partner might have been a comfort. Sex may help you to retain a bit of normality, or reinforce how you feel about your body and sexuality. It’s normal for how you feel about sex to change as you progress through treatment. Intimacy may no longer be a priority, so you may have less desire or motivation to be sexual.
It’s important to remember that a lower sex drive or loss of sexual desire is not necessarily a problem to be managed. You are already coping with a cervical cancer diagnosis and everything that comes with that, so sex might not be at the top of your agenda right now. However, if it is causing a problem for you and you want to do something about it, there is support available.
You may want to start by asking yourself a few questions:
Once you know whether this is a big issue this is for you and how it’s affecting your wellbeing, you can begin to explore your options. It may help to have this conversation with a partner, a friend or trusted healthcare professional, so they can help you to process what’s going on for you.
If you are feeling that you should be more sexual, explore where that feeling comes from. Is the pressure coming from your partner or is it self-imposed? If it’s self-imposed, try to be kinder to yourself. You have been through a lot, and there is no right or wrong way to recover from cancer. You’re doing a great job, and there’s no need to rush yourself. If the pressure is coming from your partner, communicating how you feel is essential to helping them understand and moving forwards together.
Of course, if you do want to get your sex drive and sex life back after cervical cancer, that’s totally normal too. Speaking to a healthcare professional – either your GP or a member of your healthcare team – can help you identify the problem, as well as potential ways of tackling it. You may want to take your partner with you, to include them in the conversation, or it may be easier to speak openly without them there.
The physical impact of cancer treatment on your body can have a knock-on effect on your sex drive. Hormonal changes, including early menopause, are commonly linked to a lower sex drive . This can be treated using hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which replaces the hormones your body used to produce naturally.
You may have heard or read some worrying things about HRT, but the evidence shows it is usually safe for survivors of cervical cancer to use . It is always important to speak to your doctor about any worries, as well as the benefits and risks of HRT.
Topical hormonal treatments, such as vaginal oestrogen creams, can also help with symptoms of the menopause. This includes symptoms like vaginal dryness, recurrent urinary tract infections, and thrush, which may also contribute to your reduced sexual desire.
Sex may be more challenging because of the physical effects of surgery or radiotherapy – in simple terms, how treatment has changed your body. This can also lower your sex drive.
Physical changes can include changes to your vagina, which can make sex uncomfortable or even painful, and may be made worse by the hormonal changes we talk about above. You may also experience changes to your bladder and bowels, like incontinence and needing to use the toilet more frequently or more urgently.
While these physical changes might not be directly responsible for your reduced libido, painful sex and anxiety about bowel or bladder leakages can make the whole experience of getting intimate seem fairly undesirable. Dealing with these physical barriers can therefore help to improve how you feel about sex, making it something you want, enjoy and fantasise about again, rather than a stressful and traumatic ordeal.
We have detailed information about physical changes on other pages:
There is also often a psychological element to changes in sex drive – by this we mean relating to your thoughts and feelings. Having been diagnosed and treated for cervical cancer, you’ve probably been through a rollercoaster of different emotions, so it’s understandable that this would have an impact on your sex drive.
Your experience of treatment, as well as any actual or perceived changes to your body, may have had an impact on how you feel about yourself, your femininity, or your sexuality.
It can be especially hard to reclaim your body during or after going to hospital for treatment and follow ups. You may feel as though your body has become medicalised, which can cause you to lose a connection with it.
Rebuilding your self-confidence and body image may be an emotional process, so practise being kind and gentle to yourself, and take your time to rediscover and reconnect with your healing body.
You may be struggling with the loss of your fertility, or fears and anxieties about human papillomavirus (HPV) or the cancer coming back. Again, give yourself time to grieve and process what you’ve been through.
When you start having sex after cervical cancer treatment, you may have vaginal bleeding or spotting after sex. This can understandably bring up any fears about the cancer coming back, particularly if bleeding after sex was one of the symptoms that led to your diagnosis. In reality, bleeding after sex after cervical cancer treatment is often caused by the long-term impact of treatment on your vagina. It’s important to let your doctor know about any unusual bleeding, so they can make sure there is nothing to worry about.
On top of the stresses and anxieties that come with a cervical cancer diagnosis, you may also have concerns about the COVID-19 pandemic, shielding, and everything else going on in the world at the moment. That is a lot to cope with, so it’s no surprise if you’re finding it hard to relax or feel interested in sex right now.
Whatever you’re dealing with emotionally, you don’t have to go through it alone. Keep communicating with your healthcare team and, if you have one, your partner. It might also be useful to ask for a referral to a psychologist or psychosexual therapist, who is specially trained to help you work through these issues.
Going through a cancer diagnosis, treatment, or the effects – particularly in a pandemic – can put a strain on your relationship and affect your desire for your partner. We have more detailed information about relationships on another page, but here we focus specially on how relationships can affect, or be affected by, cervical cancer.
Keep talking to your partner about how you feel, listen to their thoughts and feelings, and establish boundaries to help you start rebuilding your intimacy. Talking these issues through with a counsellor or relationship therapist might be helpful if you’re struggling.
Remember that physical intimacy doesn’t necessarily have to mean penetrative sex. Focus on building up quality time together until you feel ready to take things further. This could include:
These are just suggestions and there are many other ways to feel close to a partner. The most important thing is that you both feel comfortable with the activity.
Of course, many of these tips may be easier for couples in long-term relationships who have already established boundaries around intimacy and been through the experience of a cervical cancer diagnosis or treatment together.
Talking about and navigating sexual issues may be particularly difficult if you’re in a new relationship, or you’ve just started dating. When and how to talk about your experiences is entirely personal, but don’t feel pressured into being sexual before you are ready. It’s fine to ask to take things slow, and be honest if anything hurts or doesn’t feel right.
We have detailed information about accessing support here. You could also ask your GP or a member of your healthcare team to refer you to a specialist service.
We know that accessing support for changes to your sex drive may be more difficult than usual at the moment, as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. If you are not sure where to turn, you can give our free Helpline a call on 0808 802 8000.
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.
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.
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.
We write our information based on literature searches and expert review. For more information about the references we used, please contact [email protected]