Sex and Men With Cancer: Overview

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Mental and emotional effects of cancer treatment

Fears about not getting (or losing) erections can sometimes lead to problems with sex. Instead of letting go and feeling excited, a man may be worried about how well he does. His fear of failure can make him fail.

Erection problems caused by anxiety and stress are more common in young healthy men. Therapy can often help. But all men with erection problems should be checked by their doctors.

Men who no longer have their testicles or who are on hormone therapy drugs often feel like “less of a man.” They fear they may start to look and act like a woman. Keep in mind that manhood does not depend on hormones but on a lifetime of being male. Hormone treatment for prostate cancer may lower a man’s desire for sex, but it does not change who he desires.

Grief and loss

It’s normal to feel grief over the losses from cancer and its treatment. You might have to give up your old ideas of yourself and start finding new ways to cope with the changes in your life. You might also feel sadness and anger, even toward those close to you. Cancer changes the way you think of your body and yourself. This can affect how you see yourself sexually. These feelings and thoughts can affect your relationships, too.

It may take time for you to even notice some of the losses and changes from cancer. It might help if you can share your grief with someone close to you. If there’s no one close that you want to confide in, you might want to see a counselor. Just as it’s important to take care of pain in your body, it’s important to deal with painful feelings.


Depression is feeling empty or sad most of the time. It happens to a lot of people with cancer. Staying active is a good way to reduce stress and lower your risk of depression. Talk to your doctor about the kinds of activity that might be right for you. As long as you don’t overdo it, exercise can help you feel better during and after treatment.

Side effects can also get you down. You can reduce some side effects that some cancer treatments cause, such as pain and nausea, by taking medicines and learning skills to help you relax. Many relaxation methods can be learned from DVDs, apps, or books, although training by a mental health professional may work best. Sometimes professionals may offer other methods to help improve your sleep, eating, energy, and ability to feel pleasure. In turn, this can help your self-esteem and desire for sex.

If you notice you are sleeping poorly, feeling hopeless, not enjoying life, trouble thinking, or other signs of depression that last more than 2 weeks, talk to your doctor. Depression can be treated with drugs and/or counseling. Keep in mind that some of the newer anti-depressants can make it harder to reach orgasm. If this becomes a problem for you, talk to your doctor about it. Other anti-depressants might not have that effect on you.

Worrying about sex

Many couples believe that sex should happen on the spur of the moment, with no planning. But this may not be possible if you’re dealing with a cancer-related symptom or treatment side effect. The most important thing is to bring up the topic and talk with your partner.

Some people put off sex because they want to be sure they can satisfy their partner. One way to find out if you’re ready to enjoy sex is to start by touching yourself and bringing yourself to orgasm. That way, you can find out if cancer treatment has changed your sexual response without feeling like you must please your partner. It can also help you find out where you might be tender or sore.

If you’re OK with the idea, try stroking not just your genitals, but all of the sensitive places on your body. Notice the different feelings. Later you can teach your partner what you learn about your body. Even if cancer treatment has not changed your sexual responses, you might find some new ways to spice up your sex life. (Some of the books listed in the “To learn more about other topics related to sex and cancer” section can help you feel more relaxed about sex and touching yourself.)

Every now and then we all have sexual thoughts or feelings, but often we ignore or forget them. Your sexual thoughts can be used to improve your sex life. Pay attention to when you have them. Try to notice patterns, like the time of day, where you are, people, music, activities, movies, or fantasies. When you notice patterns, you can plan things that will help put you in the mood for sex.

If these and other efforts don’t boost your sexual interest, think about getting counseling. For more on this, please see the “Finding professional help for sex problems during and after cancer treatment” section.

Last Medical Review: 08/28/2014
Last Revised: 09/23/2014