How to talk to your partner about sex and intimacy while having cancer

12 Jun 2023

By Kate-Marie Thorpe

Sex and intimacy can take many forms in a relationship, but what happens when cancer gets thrown into the mix? It’s unexpected, it can change the way you look and feel, and how you interact with your partner romantically. 

When Danielle Simmonds was first diagnosed with breast cancer in her 20s, she went through treatment with the support of family and friends. Though she had been in a relationship shortly before her diagnosis, it was not to be. She hoped to meet someone after her chemotherapy and surgeries who would be there for her in equally tough times—someone who she could share her ‘new normal’ with. 

Opening herself, and her new body, up to someone so soon after cancer treatment was daunting for Danielle. “When I met my partner and had been on a few dates, I knew I liked him; that attraction was there, and I wanted to be intimate. But I'm quite an anxious person, I just wanted my cancer to be out in the open. We were walking in the park and I blurted out ‘I’ve had breast cancer.’ In the back of my mind though, was what I looked like underneath my clothes—all my scars—and what he’d think of that.” 

Danielle recalls having a conversation with her partner (now her husband) about what he could ‘expect’ upon their first sexual encounter. At the time, she had not had her nipple reconstruction, so was nervous about if her new partner would find her breasts attractive. “I distinctly remember saying, 'I don’t look like other women' to him, but it made no difference in the heat of the moment. He accepted and loved my body as it was.” 

Surgeries and reconstruction aren’t the only physical effects on intimacy, and Danielle has experienced a host of side effects post-treatment that are unfortunately quite common. When there is a lack of estrogen in the body, or if medication has sent you into menopause, it can cause tightness, dryness and discomfort in the vaginal region. This really makes intimacy difficult, and adjustments to how you interact sexually need to be shared with your partner.

“We tried so many different creams, prescription ointments, and lubricants—we must have gone through about 10!” says Danielle. “It was about finding a way to minimise the pain, and increase how pleasurable it felt for us both. Having these conversations can be awkward, but it’s about finding a solution that’s going to work best for both of you. I even spoke to my psychologist about if it was ‘normal’ to not want to talk about it.”

Danielle even said that communicating via text message while away from her partner about these sensitive issues made her less nervous about having difficult conversations. “I’d text him saying ‘Babe, I'm really upset. I want to be with you, but I feel like I can't be this way and it's bringing me down. I don't know what else to do. I feel like I've tried everything.’ It was almost like journaling with him, via text.”

Despite their best efforts, being intimate was still challenging even two years post-treatment for Danielle. Through her own research, and connecting with her oncology nurse, she discovered the MonaLisa Touch treatment, which can assist with vaginal atrophy, microtearing and discomfort. She shared her decision to undertake this treatment with her partner, who was fully supportive. 

“Upon my first consultation, they were quick to let me know that everyone’s outcome is different, and could not guarantee it would work for me,” says Danielle. “My partner was still supportive of me as long as I still wanted to do it, as he is always willing to try anything that might help me feel more at ease—physically and mentally. Thankfully, the treatment has worked brilliantly for me, and I have so much less pain.” 

Sex is also only one form of intimacy, and the couple developed their own ways of showing affection outside the bedroom. “He's really affectionate. He touches me and holds my hand all the time, wherever we are. I used to be really touchy-feely, but something changed in me after cancer. For me, the biggest thing—intimacy or no intimacy—was showing all my scars, having them touched, having them seen and feeling comfortable doing that with someone. He does that for me.”

Now that Danielle is more at ease with her body, and what it’s allowing her to feel, her focus is on better communication and enjoying herself. “We went through a good three years of trying different methods, different ways of being together. I still have bits of pain and discomfort, but it's much better now than what it was. You have this build up of getting to a pain-free place, and then you get to it. You almost need to recover from the PTSD of that, as well as the cancer.” 

Danielle’s biggest tip? Always keep talking, and focus on the pleasure. Danielle and her husband are now at a point where there’s no physical barriers, so reconnecting is key. “We’re rediscovering how we are together, as an intimate couple, now the pain isn’t so much a barrier. Building trust, being open and trying new things is what we’re working on now. There’s no stopping point for communication, and it doesn’t make everything instantly better: you still have to work at intimacy after the cancer is gone.” 

If your cancer treatment has sent you into early or perimenopause, it can have a big impact on your sex life, as well as many other factors. Learn more about managing early menopause and how it’s different to entering natural menopause. 

Emotions are at an all-time high during a cancer or high-risk diagnosis, but it’s important to keep communicating with those around you about how you’re feeling. Samantha Flook explains why it is important to express your emotions and not carry the load alone. 

This content is brought to you in partnership with Eli Lilly Australia and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope.