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Ovacome is a national charity providing advice and support to women with ovarian cancer.  We give information about symptoms, diagnosis, treatments and research.  Ovacome runs a telephone and email support line and works to raise awareness and give a voice to all those affected by ovarian cancer.

This fact sheet gives information about how ovarian cancer and its treatment may affect your sexuality and what you can do to cope and live with this.

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Despite being an important part of our selves, sexuality is often ignored. Naturally, people focus on the cancer and the treatments to fight it, rather than the whole effect of the disease.

You may find that you are not given the time or space to talk about how having ovarian cancer is affecting your sexuality. You may feel too embarrassed to tell health professionals about these worries. They may also not be confident to begin this type of conversation.

Your sexuality is very personal. You are unique in the way you see yourself, how you communicate with others and how others relate to you. This is closely linked to body image and self-esteem. What is important to you may not be an issue or priority to someone else. It is important to feel comfortable and confident with your own needs and desires.

The need for touch, closeness, intimacy and reassurance may be more important than the need or desire for sex. Sex is much more than the sexual act.

You do not stop being sexual just because you have ovarian cancer!  Sex in all its forms can be a very valuable therapy to help cope with having treatment for cancer. However, your sexuality can be affected by finding out you have cancer, the thought of the treatments you will have to go through and your worries about the future.

You may also be worrying about loss of fertility, premature menopause, hair loss, weight loss or gain, and pain after surgery. Any of these can change how you feel about sex.

Support from partners, friends or family can be valuable and very positive. However, sometimes if the people close to us do not understand what we are feeling, this can add to any negative feelings around sex, leaving us feeling lonely.

Having access to support and information before treatment starts can help you to deal with how you feel about sex and how you see your body from your diagnosis onwards.

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How will cancer affect my sex life?

Most people experience some difficulty in their sex life at one time or another, particularly at times of change. Having ovarian cancer is a life-changing event, which can affect your sex life in different ways.

Changes can happen from the time of diagnosis onwards. However, your first thoughts may be more concerned with coping with the diagnosis, treatment and getting through it all. It is later on, when you are ready to start or get back to having a sexual relationship, that you may notice some difficulties.

These may include less desire to have sex, difficulty achieving vaginal intercourse, pain or discomfort during sex and loss of enjoyment. You may experience changes in the way you feel about your body or in how you behave with your partner.

The physical and psychological effects of your cancer and its treatments can affect how you respond sexually.

A few typical examples are given below.

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Physical effects

Experiencing ovarian cancer and its treatment can leave you with low energy levels, bowel and bladder problems, loss of feeling around your vagina, scarring, fertility problems and early menopause.  Not surprisingly these can have a direct effect on your sexuality and sexual relationships by affecting your interest in sex or comfort and enjoyment during sex.

Your vagina may also become drier, due to the lack of oestrogen (the female hormone) which can make having sex difficult and painful. If you have had radiotherapy, you may find that you have reduced space and lubrication in your vagina.

The quality of orgasm you experience may change if you have had a hysterectomy (had your womb and cervix removed). If you have previously found that some of your pleasure during orgasm centred on your womb contracting, you may get sensation from stimulating your clitoris or vagina, which are not affected after the surgery.

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Psychological and emotional effects

If the way you see your body changes, you can feel depressed. After your experience of cancer and treatment you may have negative but completely understandable emotions such as anxiety, fear, guilt and a sense of isolation. These emotions can affect how you feel about sex, your body image, attractiveness and sexuality.

You may have worries that you find embarrassing to talk about to your partner, and this can also hold you back sexually. If you cannot carry on as before, loss of the ‘old you’ and uncertainty about the future can all be hard to accept and affect your psychological and sexual wellbeing. You may find that your emotions take a down turn around the time of your check-up or other significant occasions.

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Social effects

Your experience can give you low self-esteem and make you feel less confident to go out which can have an effect on your relationships and your sex life. Today’s society places so much emphasis on appearance that it is easy to feel less attractive and less sexy as a result of your cancer and its treatments.

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Partners

Partners also sometimes have to adjust. Your partner may need some time to accept what has happened to you and the effect this may or may not have on your relationship. Women may be under pressure to maintain sexual activity from frustrated partners who may be alarmed and distressed that their partner’s serious illness could mean the end of their sex life.

Communication is so important. Being able to talk openly about your feelings can help make things easier.

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What can I do to move forward?

Your specialist or GP should be able to provide medication to relieve symptoms such as feeling sick and pain.  

A supportive partner, friend or health professional can talk through your problems and help you to find ways of dealing with them. There is no set answer or correct way to change. It often helps to know how other women feel after their cancer treatments, so going to a support group can help.

Many couples find new ways of achieving mutual sexual pleasure by experimenting. For many, it is the overall quality of their physical intimacy and pleasure, rather than the ability to have penetrative sex that matters. Of course not everyone has a partner to have sex with, but there is no reason why you cannot continue to pleasure yourself.

Massage, makeovers and relaxation techniques can help put you back in touch with your body and improve your general wellbeing and self-esteem.

Getting help such as counselling gives a more successful result than not doing anything about the problem. Counselling at an early stage can also improve your general psychological wellbeing and shorten the time it takes you to go back to work or other activities.

Discussing intimate sexual matters can be embarrassing. However, our sexuality is important, so you should talk about any worries you have as soon as you feel ready. You can also have more in-depth psychosexual counselling. Counselling at Relate can be helpful if you are having problems in your relationship.

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Some solutions

Lubricants and vaginal moisturisers for example Sylk, Sensilube, Replens MD, and Yes help if your vagina is dry. You can also see a menopause specialist for treatment if you want.

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Who should I ask for help?

  • Your gynaecology or oncology nurse specialist
  • Your consultant and their medical team
  • Your GP

If you need more help, you can see a doctor working in psychosexual medicine, a counsellor or a menopause specialist.

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Useful information

Institute of Psychosexual Medicine 020 7580 0631, www.ipm.org.uk

College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists (COSRT), this is an organisation for therapists specialising in sexuality and relationships. It has a directory of therapists and information on sex after cancer. www.cosrt.org.uk/information-for-members-of-the-public/sex-and-cancer/

If you would like more information on the sources and references for this fact sheet, please call us on 0800 008 7054. 

If you would like to discuss anything about ovarian cancer, please phone our supportline on 0800 008 7054 Monday to Friday between 10am and 5pm.

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Written by Dr Helen Fairhurst, Associate Specialist, Psychosexual Medicine Clinic Dorset Healthcare University NHS Foundation Trust

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Disclaimer 

Ovacome fact sheets provide information and support.  We make every effort to ensure the accuracy and reliability of the information at the time of printing.  The information we give is not a substitute for professional medical care.  If you suspect you have cancer you should consult your doctor as quickly as possible.  Ovacome cannot accept liability for any inaccuracy in linked sources.

v.1.8

Date last updated May 2018

Date for review May 2020

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Did you find this fact sheet helpful? We welcome your feedback. If you have any comments or suggestions, please email [email protected] or call 0207 299 6653.