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Sexual Health and Intimacy

This information explains how to maintain sexual health and intimacy during cancer treatment.

It is common for patients to feel changes in their body during and after cancer treatment. There may be things you can see right away, like surgical scars, drainage tubes, and catheters. You may experience a loss of hair, a change in your weight, pain, or fatigue. These physical changes may affect how you feel about yourself or how you relate to your partner. They can affect your interest in sexual activity. They may also lessen your enjoyment and pleasure. Below, you will find some suggestions and resources to help you adjust and cope during this time.

Feeling Better About Yourself

  • Recognize the things that you enjoy about yourself or make you feel special. These may be related to your family, friends, personal interests, or work life.
  • Spend time doing activities and being with people that you enjoy.
  • If your faith is important, maintain your spiritual or religious practices.
  • Choose clothes that make you feel good.
  • Have your favorite clothes altered to fit better.
  • Wear scarves, attractive caps, or a favorite hat.
  • Take part in the “Look Good…Feel Better” program (see information below).

Maintaining Physical Intimacy With Your Partner

  • Talk with your partner about your physical relationship. Talk about what you think would help you feel close and give you both pleasure. Share your concerns so that you can find solutions together.
  • Increase intimate and sensual touching. Hug, caress, cuddle, touch, and hold hands to feel closer to each other.
  • If intercourse is difficult or uncomfortable:
    • Consider different sexual positions. Some may be less tiring or more comfortable.
    • Vaginal moisturizers or lubricants can be helpful for women.
    • Medications to help with erections can be helpful for men.

Special points related to sexual activity

  • Consider being intimate at times when you have more energy.
  • Being relaxed can help improve sexual enjoyment. Select a time and place when you can relax and have privacy.
  • If pregnancy is possible, use birth control during your cancer treatment. Ask your doctor how long you should use birth control after your treatment is over.
  • Ask your doctor or nurse if your blood cell counts are high enough for you to have safe sex. Your white blood cell count should be high enough to prevent infection. Your red blood cell count should be high enough to prevent bleeding. Ask if there are any safety measures you should use for different types of sexual activity (oral, anal, and vaginal).
  • Speak with your doctor or nurse if:
    • You you are a female patient and you have vaginal dryness or tightness that makes sexual activity painful. Simple solutions are available to help. You can also be referred to our Female Sexual Medicine & Women's Health Program (see contact information below).
    • You are a male patient and you have difficulty getting or keeping an erection. Your doctor can recommend medication that may help. You can also be referred to the our Male Sexual & Reproductive Medicine Program (see contact information below).
    • You are a male or female patient and you have difficulty with incontinence (involuntary leakage of urine or feces). Your doctor can give you a referral to the Sillerman Center for Rehabilitation (see contact information below).

MSK Support Services 

Female Sexual Medicine & Women's Health Program
(646) 888-5076

Get more support and information about issues of vaginal health and intimacy after cancer treatment.

Male Sexual & Reproductive Medicine Program
(646) 888-6024
Get help with issues related to erectile or ejaculatory function.
 
Sillerman Center for Rehabilitation
515 Madison Avenue (Entrance on East 53rd Street, between Park and Madison Avenues)
New York, NY 10022
(646) 888-1900
Some types of cancer and treatments damage the pelvic muscles. This can cause back and pelvic pain and urinary or fecal incontinence. If you are experiencing ongoing pain or incontinence, ask your doctor or nurse for a referral to one of physical therapists.
 
Counseling Center
641 Lexington Avenue, 7th Floor (on East 54th Street between Third and Lexington Avenues)
New York, NY 10022
(646) 888-0100
You can talk to a counselor about your emotional concerns. He or she will help you process any issues and work with you to solve problems. Your partner can attend these sessions with you, if you would like.
 
Look Good…Feel Better Program
Learn beauty techniques to help you feel better about your appearance. This program is for both women and men. There are many tips on the program website, www.lookgoodfeelbetter.org. To register for a workshop at MSK, call (212) 639-LOOK. To find out if a group program is available in your area, check the program website, or call 1-800-395-LOOK.
 

Selected Resources

American Cancer Society (ACS)
www.cancer.org
The ACS has free booklets on cancer and sexual health called Sexuality for the Man With Cancer and Sexuality for the Woman With Cancer. You can get copies by calling 1-800-ACS-2345 or by going to the website listed above.
 
National Cancer Institute (NCI)
www.cancer.gov
Contact the NCI to learn more about sexual health and cancer.