Keeping Your Sex Life Alive During Chemo

By Susan Amoruso Jara
Reviewed by Lillie D. Shockney, RN, BS, MAS

It’s hard to get into the mood when you’re dealing with the physical and emotional side effects of chemotherapy—things like nausea, fatigue, hair loss, weight loss or gain and depression. Not to mention that chemo and its side effects can cause numerous sexual difficulties for men and women, including decreased drive and inability to orgasm. The good news: As long as your oncologist says it’s okay for you to have sex, it’s possible to feel better about yourself and reignite the passion. Here’s how.

Open up to your oncologist
Intimacy may be the last thing on your mind while visiting your oncologist—you may feel embarrassed, ashamed or afraid to bring it up—but it’s important to discuss how chemo is affecting you. Spark the conversation by asking, “Is it common for chemotherapy to interfere with your sex life?” This will enable you and your oncologist to pinpoint what is standing in your way—say, loss of libido, vaginal dryness, low self-esteem. If you aren’t comfortable talking about it with your oncologist, try opening up to the nurse or nurse practitioner. Many cancer centers have physicians or therapists who specialize in sexual dysfunction as part of the oncology support team.

Open up to your partner
If you haven’t been “feeling it,” and your partner’s been patient, acknowledge it. Give him a heads up that you’d like to have a chat later on, so he won’t be blindsided. Pick a time when you’re both relaxed and comfortable, say, sitting side by side on the couch. Say something like, “I know our sex life hasn’t been great and I miss being close to you, but chemotherapy is making me exhausted.” By admitting there is a problem, you’re offering reassurance that “it’s not him,” while showing that you care about your relationship. Say, “I want to work on renewing our love life together.”

Set a loving tone
Brew your partner a cup of coffee. Offer a 5-minute back rub. Pick up his or her favorite candy bar. Tender acts of generosity have been proven to be predictors of a happy marriage—and a better sex life, according to a University of Virginia study that’s part of the National Marriage Project.  

Take date night to the next level
Sure, you know that setting aside time for you and your spouse can help you feel more connected. But rather than a same-old dinner and movie, try something new. Line-dancing, hiking, a cooking class—any pursuit that reflects a shared interest can increase your relationship satisfaction and help you feel more excited about one another, according to a study in Journal of Personality and Social Psychology.

Get your flirt on
Flirting can have a powerful effect on your marriage, serving as a playful reminder that you still find each other attractive and desirable. Squeeze your spouse’s knee under the table, exchange a meaningful glance or send a sexy text message. These small gestures will go a long way toward keeping your romance alive.

Seek physical therapy
Chemo can trigger hormonal changes that affect your range of motion, strength and function. That means some positions can be difficult or painful. A physical therapist can help you move more comfortably.

Rethink the definition of sex  
A sexual encounter with your spouse/partner doesn’t necessarily mean intercourse. Slow down and rediscover each other through foreplay. Kissing, snuggling, massaging—all of these acts can bring pleasure, build closeness and nurture intimacy. If you have lost a breast or part of a sexual organ, it’s essential to explore new erogenous zones with your partner. 

Dissolve the fear
If you haven’t had sex since your cancer treatment began, your partner may be afraid to hurt you the first time you get amorous. Offer positive reinforcement by letting your partner know when something feels good. A simple “That feels nice” lets him know he’s moving in the right direction!

Published March 2014

  Your Sex Life

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