A diagnosis of ovarian cancer and the treatment that follows may affect your sex life. Although each person is different, you may experience concerns such as a lowered libido, vaginal dryness, and intercourse discomfort.
You may also find yourself in a different headspace when it comes to intimacy. This may not last long or it could prove hard to shake.
It’s important to remember that if you experience challenges in the sex and intimacy department, you’re not alone.
According to a 2014 survey of 102 women with ovarian cancer, 63 percent of respondents reported changes in their sex lives post-diagnosis. Researchers used the
Such changes can greatly impact quality of life, per 2018 research.
Relationships may be strained and dating can feel suddenly daunting. You may also feel uncomfortable in your own skin — less attractive or desirable to a partner.
However, helpful resources are available. Increased awareness is also important as you work through things.
From hormonal changes to stress and anxiety, ovarian cancer — and its treatment — can alter sex drive, sexual functioning, and intimacy.
Ovarian cancer has a great physiological impact on the body. A cancer diagnosis and subsequent treatments also tend to be difficult and may have long-lasting mental health effects.
Ovarian cancer can disrupt how you feel in your body and about your body. Mental health resources can play an important role in your treatment and recovery.
Some of the common physical and emotional concerns include:
- lack of desire, or libido
- lack of arousal
- difficulty climaxing
- decreased satisfaction
- vaginal dryness
- painful intercourse
- body image concerns
Lower estrogen levels, chemotherapy, and other types of medications can also lead to less natural lubrication, making sex feel different than it used to.
Anyone with ovarian cancer may experience a change in their sex life, but some groups may be more at risk. According to a 2020 research review, this includes people who:
- were diagnosed at a younger age
- have had extensive surgery or chemotherapy
- live with anxiety or depression
Infertility is another concern that often results from ovarian cancer. For people who hoped to bear children, it may be especially difficult to come to terms with.
According to the American Cancer Society, treatment for ovarian cancer often involves ovary removal, or what’s called a bilateral oophorectomy.
When the ovaries are removed, estrogen levels drop, per the American Cancer Society. This can lower sex drive — but not always.
The change in libido may be more prominent if you haven’t gone through menopause. This is because ovary removal is considered surgical menopause.
Some people may also need to have their uterus removed (hysterectomy) or have their fallopian tubes removed (salpingectomy). These serious surgical procedures depend on how advanced or severe the cancer is.
Concerns related to sex and intimacy after an ovarian cancer diagnosis can greatly impact quality of life.
If you’re a cancer survivor, you might wonder if you should even bother bringing up your emotional well-being. You might feel nervous or shy talking with your doctor about your sex life or about feeling unattractive.
These are valid concerns, however, and good doctors won’t brush them off. Try to keep in mind that healthcare professionals are used to talking about personal matters.
Your doctor may be able to refer you to a variety of clinicians experienced in helping with specific concerns, whether it’s difficulty reaching orgasm or struggling with vaginal dryness.
Here are a few potential solutions that address many of the common concerns around sex and intimacy:
Pelvic floor therapy
Pelvic surgery, surgical menopause, radiation, and more can all impact pelvic floor muscles, leading to pelvic floor dysfunction (PFD), per
PFD can be at the root of various concerns related to sexual function, including painful intercourse. A pelvic floor physical therapist can help you:
- strengthen your pelvic floor
- address imbalances
- relax tense muscles
A small 2018 study of 46 women with ovarian cancer found that a half-day session that included pelvic floor awareness and relaxation training, as well as other therapies, helped improve sexual function.
The participants learned about the muscles of the pelvic floor. Mindfulness-based strategies for muscle release were also a part of the workshop.
A more recent study from 2020 revealed that pelvic floor muscle interventions may help improve sexual function in women who’ve been diagnosed with gynecological cancer.
Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT)
CBT challenges negative thought patterns. A mental health professional can teach you CBT techniques to help you cope with concerns surrounding stress, anxiety, self-image, and even relationship concerns. All of these may interfere with intimacy.
The previously mentioned 2018 study of 46 women with ovarian cancer found that some behavioral intervention helped improve overall sexual functioning and psychological distress.
Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone in navigating issues related to sex and intimacy after ovarian cancer can offer comfort.
Check for a support group in your area or find an online community. In the 2018 study mentioned earlier, 98 percent of participants with ovarian cancer who engaged in a half-day group session found the experience helpful.
During the group session, which included practicing nonjudgmental curiosity about thoughts and feelings, many participants expressed relief in finding a community of people who could relate to what they were going through.
Ongoing one-on-one counseling
Keep in mind that receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer is a major life event that might impact your life even years after treatment and recovery.
Once the immediate crisis passes and your body has healed, you may still experience stress or anxiety. It may be difficult to return to what you once considered your typical life. Some people even experience post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) from medical trauma.
Talking with a mental health professional on a regular basis may help you work through complicated feelings related to diagnosis, treatment, sense of self, and outlook on life.
Whether you’re partnered or not, it’s perfectly OK to think about sex differently or to struggle with intimacy issues.
Here are several ways you can begin to heal:
Reconnect with yourself
Try exploring pleasure solo and see what is comfortable, makes you feel sexy, and turns you on. You can then work with a partner, if you want, to rekindle lost intimacy.
Be open with your partner
Have a conversation with your partner about how you’re feeling about sex and intimacy. They’ll want to support you.
That may look like taking more time in recovery before becoming sexually active again. Once you’re ready, you might try exploring new positions and paces or using lubricants or toys.
Think about sex in new ways
Remember that sex doesn’t always have to be about intercourse or focused on the genitals. Intimacy can involve cuddling, massage, kissing, touching each other’s erogenous zones, and more.
Go at your own pace
If you’re navigating the world of sex and dating as an unpartnered person, know that it’s OK to want to take it slow.
If and when you meet someone you are considering beginning a sexual relationship with, be open about where you are and how you’re feeling. Find someone who respects your boundaries and the journey you’ve been on.
And if you’re not ready to date, that’s fine, too. You can simply explore pleasure with yourself at your own pace.
Diagnosis and treatment for ovarian cancer often have a large impact on your sex life. Don’t hesitate to discuss sexual symptoms and emotional distress or anxiety around intimacy with a healthcare professional.