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Sexual Relationships and Cancer

Sexual Response and Having Better Sexual Experiences

Experts used to think that the sexual response was always linear, which means that it happens in a certain order. It starts with spontaneous desire, followed by arousal, orgasm, and then resolution. For some people (especially those that start with a high sex drive), it does happen like this. However, when life is busy, demands pile up, children need to be looked after, you have appointments, or you’re tired and have no energy, it may feel like there is no time or energy left for sex. Spontaneous sex drive is one of the first things to go when you’re stressed or sick and it’s often one of the last things to come back after you recover from treatment. Sometimes it can even take months or years.

But, what if I don’t have much desire for sex?

Lots of people choose to have sex, even if they’re not feeling a strong sexual desire. They may still choose to have sex because:

  • they want to give back to their partner
  • it’s a way to feel close and connected to their partner
  • they want to feel sexual pleasure or tension release
  • they want to feel desirable or attractive

Even if you’re not feeling a very strong desire to have sex, you can still accept an invitation to be sexual. You may even find that you start to enjoy yourself. Lots of people can enjoy sex, even if they don’t have an orgasm. Sometimes it helps take the pressure off if you try not to worry about a certain outcome (e.g., orgasm, penetration). That way, you and your partner will feel successful and may enjoy yourselves.

The brain is the most important sex organ. How people think about sex is very important. If someone starts to dread sex, this can make it more challenging to get motivated to be sexual. People might start to avoid sex because:

  • it’s very hard to get aroused or feel pleasure during sex
  • they fear sex because of pain with intercourse
  • they’re afraid they won’t be able to get an erection, become aroused, or have an orgasm
  • they might think their partner is only trying to be close to them because they want sex

Sometimes people may start to resent their partner for asking for sex. When this starts to happen, it sets up negative expectations for sex. The more positive a person’s expectations, the more likely they are to enjoy sex and want to have it again. If this is happening to you and your partner, try talking about it. If it’s hard to start a talk about this, you can ask for help or support.

What is good sex?

When people are asked about what makes a sexual experience good, there are many answers (e.g., both partners wanted to be there, partners were focused on each other, both partners gave and received pleasure, it was in a good place, there was enough time, partners were both relaxed).

There are many factors that can affect sex.

What makes sex good?

When people are asked about what makes sex good, there are many answers including: both partners wanted to be there, each partner was focused the other, and there was enough time.

There are many factors that can affect sex including:

The Place

  • Where are you going to have sex?
  • Do you have enough time so you don’t feel rushed?

Feelings about Yourself

  • Do you feel good about yourself?
  • Are you sick, tired, or stressed?
  • Are you scared or nervous?

The Relationship

  • Do you feel good about your relationship?
  • How are you doing as a couple?
  • Did you just have a fight?

Remember, Sex is More Than Just Intercourse

Sex includes many different types of activities, which may or may not lead to an orgasm including:

  • masturbation
  • kissing for a long time
  • touching each other with your hands
  • using sex toys (e.g., vibrator or dildo)
  • oral sex
  • penis-vagina intercourse
  • outercourse, which is when the genitals touch each other, but there’s no penetration
  • anal sex
  • full body massage

What if my body doesn’t respond the way it used to?

Sometimes trying hard to get things back to the way they were before cancer can be very frustrating. After cancer, many things change besides the body. For example, a person might have vaginal dryness or pain or changes in erectile function. People might also feel different about themselves. It helps to be open with your partner about the changes you’re going through and how they make you feel.

Because your body is different now, you may need different types of stimulation to feel good. What used to work well, might not work anymore. For example, a woman who enjoyed having her breasts touched might not feel things the same way if she had surgery and she might not be comfortable having her breasts touched anymore. Or a man with erectile dysfunction might need to be touched harder and/or faster to reach an orgasm. Try new ways to touch your partner to find out what works for you. Talk about this with your partner. Being open to new ideas may help you have good sex again.

If you can try to be open to trying different types of sexual activities, it will be easier to have a healthy sex life. Don’t feel pressured to always just have intercourse. You may need to try different kinds of touch (e.g., lighter, longer, or with a vibrator) to get aroused.​

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