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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.

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. The side effects you have will depend on where the cancer is in your bowel, and what treatment you have.

Your doctor or nurse can tell you more about how your treatment might affect your sex life. You may feel embarrassed to talk to doctors or nurses about sexual problems. But they deal with these things all the time, so try not to feel embarrassed to talk about this. If you tell them about any problems you have, they can find ways of helping you to deal with them.

Effects on your sex life

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 want to.

Many people do not feel like having 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.

Some bowel cancer treatments affect your ability to have children (fertility).  Your healthcare team should discuss this risk with you when you are diagnosed. You can get support to help you cope.

Research suggests that sexual problems are quite common in people after treatment for colorectal cancer. 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. Radiotherapy and chemotherapy can also cause changes which can affect your sex life.

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 or radiographer can give you the dilators and advice on how to use them.

Anal sex

Surgery for cancer in your lower back passage (rectum) will involve the surgeon removing all of your rectum and anus (abdomino perineal (AP) resection).

If you used to have anal sex, you will no longer be able to. This might have a big impact on your life. But your surgeon and specialist nurse will talk to you about this before and after your surgery.

There may be other ways for you to enjoy your sex life. Talking openly about your thoughts and feelings with your partner will help with this.

Get help

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

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: 
09 Nov 2018
  • Physical and psychological effects of treatment on sexual functioning in colorectal cancer survivors
    S Breukink and others
    The Journal of Sexual Medicine, 2013. Volume 10, Pages 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, 2010. Pages 1488-1496

  • Addressing sexual dysfunction in colorectal cancer survivorship care
    J Avery and P Nishimoto
    J Gastrointest Oncol. 2014 Oct; Volume 5 Issue 5 Pages 388–394.

  • American Cancer Society Colorectal Cancer Survivorship Care Guidelines (September 2015)
    (Accessed November 2018)

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