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Sex life

Find out how bowel cancer and its treatment can affect your sex life and relationships.

Effects on your sex life

Most people are able to have a normal sex life after having bowel cancer. You will need time to get over surgery, or any other treatment. You should not have sex for at least 6 weeks after major surgery. But there is no reason why chemotherapy or radiotherapy should stop you making love if you feel like it.

Many people do not feel like sex while they are having treatment. Try not to worry about this. Side effects and general tiredness are bound to get in the way. If you have had a colostomy or ileostomy you may also feel self conscious about the change in your body.

Men and women

Surgery to the bowel or back passage (rectum) can affect the nerves to the sex organs. This can cause sexual problems in both men and women. The number of people who have problems is not certain but research suggests over half of people having surgery have some problems. If you have radiotherapy before surgery it raises the risk of having sexual problems after treatment.

Men

A man may not be able to get, or keep, an erection and may have dry orgasms. There are a number of treatments available for erectile problems.

Women

A woman may find that her vagina shrinks slightly and begins to get a bit narrower after radiotherapy for bowel cancer. Regular sex can help to gently stretch the vagina. Or you can use vaginal dilators. Your nurse can give you the dilators and advice on how to use them.

Anal sex

If you have surgery for cancer in your lower rectum, the surgeon will remove all of your rectum and anus (abdomino perineal (AP) resection). If you used to have anal sex, you will no longer be able to. Your surgeon and specialist nurse will talk to you about this before and after your surgery. There will be other ways for you to enjoy a fulfilling sex life. Talking openly about your thoughts and feelings with your partner will help with this.

The effects mentioned here don't affect everyone who has bowel cancer treatment and they may get better over time. Occasionally, the changes can be permanent. You may feel very embarrassed to talk to doctors or nurses about sexual problems. But doctors and nurses deal with these things all the time, so you don't need to feel embarrassed. If you tell them about any problems you have, they can find ways of helping you to deal with them.

Get help

You will probably find that talking things over with your partner can help. It will take time for both of you to come to terms with all that has happened to you. But sharing how you feel can help you to understand each other better.

You may prefer to talk to a specialist counsellor either alone or with your partner if you have one. Your doctor or specialist nurse can put you in touch with a sex therapist if you feel you would like this type of help.

You can call the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040, from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday.
Last reviewed: 
30 Sep 2015
  • Physical and psychological effects of treatment on sexual functioning in colorectal cancer survivors
    S Breukink and others
    The Journal of Sexual Medicine 10.S1 (2013): 74-83

  • The prevalence of erectile dysfunction in post‐treatment colorectal cancer patients and their interests in seeking treatment: A cross‐sectional survey in the West Midlands
    R Ellis and others
    The Journal of Sexual Medicine 7.4pt1 (2010): 1488-1496

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