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Sexual Relationships and Cancer

Low Sexual Desire

It’s common to lose your desire for sex when you’re diagnosed with cancer or during treatment. This is also normal as people get older and it’s very common after people are sick, after stressful events, or when people are depressed or anxious.

Even though you might be less interested in sex, having sex with your partner may still be important to you. This information has ideas that may help improve your desire, or may help you stay sexually active, even if you’re not that interested. You may find some ideas that interest you. Think about trying one or two of the following tips to get you started.

Increase your Physical Affection

If you and your partner aren’t having sex like you used to, you might not be as affectionate with each other either. Sometimes the ways you used to touch each other (e.g., kisses, cuddles, back rubs) would lead to sex. If you’re not having sex anymore, these other ways of touching each other might also have stopped. Sometimes without desire to remind you to get close to your partner, you might be less affectionate or your fear of being sexual might stop you from being affectionate.

Physical affection is important for intimate relationships because it can:

  • release hormones that help you feel close and connected to your partner
  • have a powerful, calming effect on your body
  • help your partner feel loved, not rejected

You may need to tell your partner that you aren’t interested in sex right now, but you’d still like to be affectionate or close to each other. Try to remember to touch each other more often in a non-sexual way. To do this, try these ideas:

  • put your arm around your partner
  • touch your partner’s face, back, or arm
  • cuddle close on the couch or in bed
  • hug
  • kiss
  • hold hands
  • give each other a massage

Explore Your Sensual Side

If you don`t feel motivated to stay sexually active, try being close and connected to your partner in other intimate ways. To do this, try these activities:

  • order in your favourite food
  • watch a romantic or erotic movie
  • dance in your living room
  • read each other a story
  • listen to your favourite music
  • take a bath together
  • wear silk pajamas
  • massage each other’s backs, feet, or head
  • use scented oils or incense
  • dim the lights and use candlelight
  • cuddle with each other

Don’t Wait for Spontaneous Sexual Desire

Natural urges and desire make people want to have sex. Many young people have spontaneous desire. However, these spontaneous sex urges naturally decrease as people get older.

Many people think they need to be turned on before they have sex. This isn’t always true. Was there ever a time you weren’t really interested in having sex, but your partner was? If you started some sexual touching, you probably started to enjoy yourself and your body became aroused. Once foreplay or sex starts, you may feel desire as a response to sexual touch. Instead of waiting for desire before you start touching your partner, try touching your partner and let them touch you—you may find that you start to become aroused.

Start with Something Small

Can you remember a time when you weren’t hungry and didn’t feel like eating? The idea of eating a big meal when you’re not really hungry isn’t very appealing. Sex can be the same if you aren’t feeling strong sexual desire. Thinking about having intercourse can be overwhelming if you aren’t aroused. See what happens if you both agree to try sexual touching and not commit to having intercourse and see where it goes.

Foreplay (e.g., cuddling, kissing, touching) sometimes lead to intercourse, and sometimes it doesn’t—but it’s still enjoyable. A man with erectile dysfunction or a woman with vaginal pain may enjoy some kinds of sexual touch, but not others. Many people still enjoy sex even if they don’t have an orgasm.

When you eat an appetizer and you’re not very hungry, it might make you want to eat more. Sex can be the same way. Kissing, cuddling, and touching may lead to more activity, or it may be satisfying enough in that moment. You might even find that sexual touching makes you more interested in having intercourse after all.

The more positive sexual experiences you have with your partner, the more you might think about intimacy and closeness. For example, having a kissing session one day might get you thinking about sex the next day. This may help make your sexual desire stronger.

Give Yourself Enough Time to Get Aroused

If you’re a woman going through menopause, you’ll likely need more time to get aroused than you used to. The kinds of touch that used to turn you on might not work as well or you might be more distracted so it’s hard to concentrate on feeling pleasure. If you’re having vaginal pain, it’s really important that your body has enough time to get aroused before you try penetration. The body needs time to warm up before intercourse because when you’re getting aroused, the vagina and vulva need to fill with blood, which helps to you feel pleasure. The vagina gets bigger and wider to help with penetration. It makes fluid to help with penetration—this is important because there’s likely less lubrication than you used to have. It can take 30 minutes to get aroused. So before intercourse, spend more time on foreplay or other kinds of sexual touch.

Plan Time for Sex

Some people assume that spontaneous sex is better than planned sex—but good sex can be planned. For example, when you plan a holiday or social event, you can think about it and look forward to it. Setting time for sex can help make it a priority.

Some tips for planning sex:

  • choose one evening or one morning a week
  • sex in the morning is often best because people are more tired at the end of the day
  • if you plan sex, you don’t have to rely on your desire to remind you

Try these ideas to help set the mood before planned sex:

  • play your favourite music and dance together
  • take a bubble bath together
  • massage each other
  • spend time holding each other
  • enjoy long kisses
  • spend time touching each other sexually

These activities are to help you and your partner feel more connected physically and may help get you ready or in the mood for planned sex.

Take Turns Starting Sex

There’s often one person who starts sex more often than the other. If that person is feeling less interested in sex, it may be time to try taking turns. Changing this may help take pressure off you or your partner.

It may feel different to start sex if that hasn’t been your role. For the person who used to do it often, being invited may be new and arousing. For this to work, be clear about what you expect from each other.

Exercise

Treatments like pelvic surgery, pelvic radiation, or chemotherapy can decrease your desire or make it hard to get aroused. This is because blood flow to the genitals is decreased.

Exercise increases blood flow, which helps keep the body healthy. This helps improve your mood and how you feel. Exercise can also help your sexual desire because it increases blood flow to the whole body

Any exercise that increases your heart rate is good. Try:

  • swimming
  • jogging
  • aerobics
  • hiking
  • biking
  • walking
  • playing tennis
  • skating

An orgasm is a release in the tension of the pelvic floor muscles. Strengthening these pelvic floor muscles may give you better orgasms and it helps you to be more aware of what’s happening in this part of the body. Being aware of these sensations can help you have better sex.

Explore Sexual Fantasy

Sometimes it can be hard to focus on desire and pleasure when there are so many other things going on in your life. Fantasy can help you focus and be creative. You can to use it alone or with your partner. Remember, you choose your fantasy, so think of positive and pleasurable fantasies. They may be sexual or more romantic—either is okay.

To start thinking about fantasy:

  • think back to something you really enjoyed and use this as a starting point
  • think back to a time you had really good sex with your partner
  • explore things you haven’t thought about before (e.g., new place, pretend you have a different identity or you’re a character in a story or movie)
  • think about trying something new and what it will be like—this can help you plan when you’re ready to try it
  • start a fantasy journal—write about what activities you enjoy the most and fantasies you find the most exciting

If fantasy is new for you, you may want to read some erotic material to get you started. You can find these materials in a bookstore or library in the self-help, psychology, sex, or love sections.

Erotic material may help set the mood and turn you on. You may decide to explore with your partner, or try it by yourself at first. Erotic material comes in many forms (e.g. movies, music, art, magazines, books).

Before you look for materials, think about these questions:

  • What are your beliefs about erotic material?
  • Have you ever used erotic materials?
  • Do you have any thoughts (positive or negative) about erotic material?
  • Do you worry what your partner might think if you suggest erotic material?
  • Are you willing to explore to find out what you like best?

If you’re worried about erotic materials being too graphic, many movies have sex scenes in them. This might be a good way to start your exploration.​​

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