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Sexual desire includes thinking about, fantasising about or being interested in sex; it’s also called sex drive or libido. Not everyone has a spontaneous desire or feels like they want to have sex, you may have other motivations or reasons to want to be sexual, including fulfilling physical, emotional and relationship needs. Maybe it’s your partner who initiates sex and you are receptive to their approach and willing to engage. Desire isn’t an essential component for satisfying sexual experiences, either alone or with a partner.
Before you were diagnosed your sexual interest would have fluctuated depending on what was happening in your life. Finding out you had cervical cancer may have had a massive impact on your sexual desire. Initially you may have had an increased desire to be intimate or sexual, possibly to reinforce how you felt as a woman, to find comfort and closeness to your partner or just trying to get back to normal. Interest in sex tends to decrease as time moves on, you may have few or no thoughts about sex, have a negative attitude towards it, start to avoid sexual situations or lose your motivation to be sexual. This may not be the case for you; however, in our sex and relationships survey three out of four of you (73%) reported loss of desire.
There are many reasons you may lose your desire, some easy to address, and others that are more difficult and for which you may need different interventions to help. The first step is acknowledging to yourself if this is a problem and if you want to change it. Communication with your partner (if you have one), with friends and with health care professionals (HCPs) can help you work this out.
It can be difficult and scary to start a conversation, but once you take that step it will hopefully enable you to get further support and to work on some of the things you would like to change.
Hormonal changes, including early menopause, can be treated with hormone replacement therapy (HRT). Other preparations, such as vaginal oestrogen creams, can be used to help reduce other symptoms, like dryness of the vagina, recurrent urinary tract infections and thrush, which some women experience after going through the menopause. Some medications affect whether you feel like having sex, such as contraceptives or anti-depressants, so it’s worth checking to see if there is an alternative that can be prescribed. Alcohol and recreational drugs also interfere with levels of sexual desire.
Physiological changes, as a result of surgery or radiotherapy, to your vagina or to your bowels and bladder (risk of accidents) can interfere with sexual activity; ask your HCP for advice. For more information on these possible side effects, ways to manage them and where to go for support, please visit our information pages on side effects. Dealing with problems that affect the other stages of sexual response can help increase your interest in sex; after all, you’re not going to fantasise and desire something that is painful or unsatisfying.
Some women have vaginal bleeding or spotting after having sex (this is often caused by changes to the vagina after radiotherapy treatment). This can be difficult for both the woman and her partner if she experienced bleeding prior to diagnosis and it can raise concerns over recurrence. It’s important to talk to your HCP team if you are experiencing abnormal bleeding.
You may be struggling with loss of fertility or fears that sex will make your cancer worse or come back, or you may feel worried about human papillomavirus (HPV). For more information on HPV and its link to cervical cancer, you may like to visit our HPV information pages and FAQs.
How you feel about yourself, your body image, changes to your body (either real or perceived), and your self confidence and self esteem all affect your sex drive. Being kind to yourself and rebuilding your confidence will begin to help how you feel about yourself and, in turn, how you feel sexually. Understanding how your body works, setting time aside and making a safe space for you to be intimate, either alone or with a partner, will also help. There are self-focus and mindfulness exercises that you can do; speak to your Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) about this or ask if you can see a counsellor, clinical psychologist or psychosexual therapist.
If your relationship has changed, talking to your partner about how you feel and any fears you may have might help. Remember to listen to their thoughts too. Setting boundaries and being honest about how you both feel can enable you to start building intimacy again, although intimacy does not have to lead to sex and you can agree what you want with your partner in advance.
‘It’s about sitting down and discussing your differences and then it makes it better to work thorough together. Then instead of having an enemy you are developing a closer friendship.’ – Jessica, affected by cervical cancer
Try to increase the time that you are intimate with your partner. You can agree together that intimacy may not lead to sex if this makes you both feel more relaxed. Intimacy can include:
No matter how simple some of these things sound, please don’t underestimate how difficult and important they may be to help you move forward. Don’t give up at the first hurdle; there is no shame in asking for help. Psychosexual education and specific treatment plans to deal with the impact of cancer on you, your relationships and sex are available. If you decide you need extra support you can ask your GP or your CNS for a referral to a specialist service.
You may like to visit our useful links page on sex and relationships.