Sex and bowel cancer
This page tells you about how bowel cancer and its treatment can affect your sex life and relationships. You can find the following information
Sex and bowel cancer
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.
Many people don't feel like sex while they are having treatment. 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.
You will probably find that talking things over with your partner can help. You may prefer to talk to a specialist counsellor, either alone or with your partner.
Sometimes, radiotherapy or an operation to the rectum can affect the nerves to the sex organs. A man may not be able to get, or keep, an erection. A woman may find that sex feels different from before the treatment, and may have vaginal dryness and pain. Women may also find after radiotherapy that their vagina shrinks slightly and gets narrower.
These effects do not affect everyone who has bowel cancer treatment and they may get better over time. Occasionally, the changes can be permanent. There is more information about sex, sexuality and cancer in our coping with cancer section.
You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the living with bowel cancer section.
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.
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.
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. You can find out more about them in the section about sex and men.
Women may find that sensations during sex are different from before. It can take some time to get used to this. Some women may have vaginal dryness and pain during intercourse. Using a lubricating gel or cream can help to moisten the vagina.
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. There is detailed information about dilators in our section about side effects of radiotherapy to the pelvis.
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.
We have more information about sex, sexuality and cancer.
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 contact our cancer information nurses for help in finding a therapist or counsellor.
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