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Orgasm after cervical cancer

An orgasm is the climax or release of sexual tension that can happen in response to prolonged sexual stimulation. After a cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment, many women and people with a cervix find orgasm less pleasurable or harder to have.

Having an orgasm might feel like a small issue compared to a cancer diagnosis but, for many people, sexual pleasure and intimacy is important for their quality of life. Getting your sex life back can be a significant step in recovering from cervical cancer. It may take time to rediscover your body and what works for it now, but there is support available if you need it.

On this page:

About orgasm

During orgasm, the muscles in your vagina and pelvic floor contract and release, sending waves of pleasure through the genitals and triggering the release of feel-good chemicals called endorphins. After orgasm, it’s common to feel joyful and relaxed. You may experience increased emotional intimacy or closeness to your partner due to the oxytocin that’s released.

For many women and people with a cervix, having an orgasm is not essential to pleasurable or satisfying sex. However, if having one is your goal or you’ve previously experienced pleasure from orgasm, it can be frustrating and distressing if this isn’t possible.

Causes of changes to your orgasm

Orgasms are complex and everyone experiences them differently. You may remember from your earlier sexual experiences that having an orgasm can take time and practice.

Many different physical, psychological and emotional factors affect orgasm and sexual satisfaction. A cervical cancer diagnosis and treatment is likely to have affected both your mind and your body in some way. It’s okay to acknowledge this and treat yourself gently.

Many people orgasm for the first time through masturbation, after a process of getting to know their body, and finding out what turns them on and feels good. As frustrating as it may be, recovery from cervical cancer involves getting to know your body all over again – what has changed and what feels different, as well as coming to terms emotionally with what you have been through.

Physical changes

Pelvic radiotherapy can cause hormonal and vaginal changes. This may make it difficult to become aroused, or cause pain or discomfort during sex. If sex itself isn’t comfortable or pleasurable, it’s no surprise that you may find it harder to achieve orgasm. Radiotherapy can also cause the vagina to bleed more, which may be distressing if you’re anxious about recurrence or experienced bleeding after sex before being diagnosed.

Surgery can change the sensations you feel in your genitals during sex and orgasm. If your uterus, cervix, and the top part of your vagina have been removed, orgasms might feel different, as you will no longer experience the contractions of your uterus or cervix.

Hormonal changes because of radiotherapy or hysterectomy can also slow down your sexual responses. This means orgasm may take longer and require more stimulation than it did before diagnosis.

Read about pelvic radiation disease (PRD) >

Emotional changes

Your thoughts and feelings around sex, your body and your relationship may have changed. You might feel less confident in your body image, or distracted by other concerns and anxieties about your health, future, and the wider world. These kinds of psychological and emotional factors can prevent you from being able to relax and enjoy sex in the way you used to before cancer. There is a huge amount to process when you’re recovering from cancer, so it’s understandable if you are finding it more difficult to be fully present when it comes to sex and pleasure.

Managing changes to your orgasm

Giving yourself time and space to enjoy sex is the most important step towards rediscovering your orgasm. Putting pressure on yourself and trying to force it will probably only make it harder. Instead, focus on pleasure and finding what feels good – either alone or with a partner.

Clitoral stimulation

The good news is that your clitoral function shouldn’t have been affected by treatment, so this is a really good place to focus your time and energy – particularly if penetrative sex is difficult or painful right now. The majority of women and people with a clitoris require clitoral stimulation to achieve climax, with 7 in 10 (70%) unable to orgasm through penetration alone.

Try masturbation or clitoral stimulation from a partner to discover what feels pleasurable and ‘hits the spot’ for you. Using a vibrator or other sex toys may help with this. Try not to worry too much about achieving an orgasm at first, just enjoy the experience. 

Mindfulness

Practicing mindfulness exercises can help to relax your mind and, in turn, your body. The focus doesn’t have to be orgasm – it can be improving your general mental wellbeing. But one outcome of this may be an improved experience with sex and pleasurable sensations that can come with it, including orgasm.

There are lots of different ways to practice mindfulness. You may have to try a few before finding one that works for you. Mental wellbeing charities, like Mind, have good suggestions and examples online.

Read about mindfulness on the Mind website >

Treatment and exercises

If there are any physical issues getting in the way of a fulfilling sex life, seeking medical care to improve these can help make sex a fun and pleasurable experience again.

Practising pelvic floor exercises can also help to strengthen the muscles in your pelvis and improve your orgasm. The NHS has information on pelvic floor exercises that you might find helpful. Or you can ask your Clinical Nurse Specialist (CNS) or GP to be referred to a pelvic physiotherapist, if you need some support to get the technique right.

Read about pelvic floor exercises on the NHS website >

Processing your emotions

Processing the emotional impact of cancer treatment will take time, but is so important in rebuilding your self-esteem, recovering a more positive body image and reclaiming emotional control over your sex life.

Talk about your thoughts and feelings with a trusted friend, relative, or your partner if you’re in a relationship. You may want to speak to a member of your healthcare team that you feel comfortable with. It might also be helpful to be referred for talking therapy, either with a counsellor or a psychosexual therapist.

Find out where to get support >

More information and support about orgasm

We know not being able to orgasm, especially if you have previously experienced one, can be frustrating or distressing. It’s easier to say than do, but try to remember that sex and intimacy are about so much more than an end goal of orgasm. Exploring new ways for sex to be pleasurable could be a good way for you to reconnect with yourself or a partner – whether or not an orgasm is the result.

If it is having a real impact on your life, it is important to ask your GP or healthcare team for support. They can assess your situation and may be able to refer you to a specialist.

Accessing support for changes to orgasm may be more difficult at the moment because of the coronavirus pandemic. 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 our Helpline opening hours >

Our 1-to-1 service offers a private way to get support over email, phone call or video call. Although we can’t offer sex therapy or relationship counselling, we can talk through your personal situation, as well as helping you process your feelings and think about next steps. We also welcome partners to use our 1-to-1 service, so if you are a partner reading this or think yours would benefit from some extra support, get in touch.

Access our 1-to-1 service >

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

  • The whole versus the sum of some of the parts: toward resolving the apparent controversy of clitoral versus vaginal orgasms. Socioaffective Neuroscience and Psychology. 2016. 
  • Mindfulness skills are associated with female orgasm?. Sexual and Relationship Therapy. 2014. 
  • The effect of pelvic floor muscle training on femail sexual function: a systematic review. Physiotherapy 101. 2015. 
  • Beneficial effects of pelvic floor muscle exercises on sexual function among postmenopausal women: a randomised clinical trial. Sexual Health 15. 2018. 

Questions?

If you have questions or concerns about sex and intimacy after cervical cancer, get a confidential response from a medical professional.

Ask the Expert

Mary's blog

"Would I ever have an orgasm again?" Sex after a cervical cancer treatment. 

Read Mary's blog
Date last updated: 
28 Oct 2020
Date due for review: 
28 Oct 2023
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