Sex after cancer: Talk about it

Candy hearts with sexual health conversation phrases

Most women with cancer — as many as 75 percent — experience difficulties with sex and sexuality after their treatment. But most doctors, including cancer specialists, tend to avoid the topic unless the patient brings it up, says gynecologist Stacy Lindau, MD

“Sexual function can be preserved and restored after cancer, but not if no one is talking about it,” said Lindau, director of the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine (PRISM) for Women and Girls with Cancer. The PRISM team has cared for more than 500 women with all types of cancer.

Lindau recommends female patients talk with their doctor before starting cancer treatment. Here are some of the questions she suggests to start the conversation:

I was blessed to have doctors who addressed my sexual wellbeing at the time of diagnosis — before surgeries and treatment. I felt I was being treated as a whole person. — Sue Golden, gynecologic cancer survivor
  • Are there any treatment options that would both give me a good cancer outcome and preserve my sexual function?
  • Do I need to stop having sex, and if so, how will I know when it’s okay to start having sex again?
  • Will chemotherapy affect my sexual function?
  • How will surgery affect my ability to have normal sexual arousal and pleasure?
  • Can I do something to make sex more comfortable during treatment?
  • Will shutting doing my ovaries or blocking all the estrogen in my body affect my sexual function?
  • Will radiation to or near my sexual organs affect me?

Lindau’s team recently launched WomanLab, an online platform that addresses sexual function in women, especially within the context of cancer care and other health conditions.

“We offer resources and support not only to women affected by illness, but to the doctors and other providers who care for them,” Lindau said. “If we can help women and their doctors feel more comfortable talking about sex, we can close this gap in care for women affected by cancer.”