Sexuality for the Woman With Cancer

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Overcoming anxiety about sex

Many couples believe that sex should always happen on the spur of the moment, with little or no advance planning. But sometimes you are dealing with a cancer-related symptom or treatment side effect that makes it impossible to be as spontaneous as you would have been in the past. The most important thing is to open up the topic for discussion and begin scheduling some relaxed time together. Couples need to restart their lovemaking slowly.

Part of the anxiety about resuming sex is caused by the pressure to satisfy your partner. One way to explore your own capacity to enjoy sex is to start by touching yourself. Self-stimulation (or masturbation) is not a required step in restarting your sex life, but it can be helpful. By touching your own genitals and bringing yourself pleasure, you can find out if cancer treatment has changed your sexual response without having to worry about frustrating your partner. It can also help you find out where you might be tender or sore, so that you can let your partner know what to avoid.

Many of us may have learned as children that self-stimulation was wrong or shameful. But it’s a normal and positive experience for most people. Most men and women have tried touching their own genitals at some time in their lives. Many people who enjoy good sex lives with their partners still masturbate sometimes. Men and women in their 70s, 80s, and 90s often still enjoy self-stimulation.

If you feel relaxed with the idea, try stroking not just your genitals, but all of the sensitive areas of your body. Notice the different feelings of pleasure that you can have.

The self-help books listed in the “To learn more” section can help you feel more relaxed about self-stimulation. Later, you can teach your partner any new discoveries you make about your body’s sensitive zones. Even if cancer treatment has not changed your sexual responses, you may find some new caresses to enhance your sexual routine.


  • Research has shown that self-stimulation is the most common sexual behavior in humans. Although more common in men, women also enjoy self-pleasuring.
  • Self-stimulation may not be OK with your personal and religious belief system and should not be forced. The most important aspect of being sexual is feeling comfortable with your personal thoughts and beliefs.
  • Self-stimulation is a real sexual behavior that doesn’t have to be seen as a negative alternative to sex with a partner. Many people in healthy relationships still self-stimulate.
  • You may discover that gently stroking not only your genitals but other areas of your body gives you a sense of well-being. Many women find their breast area, nipples, and other areas of their body highly sensitive to touch. Different women find different parts pleasurable. Take time to explore your body. Some areas may be sensitive from surgery or radiation; you may choose to avoid these areas for now. Try exploring these areas again later.
  • If you feel comfortable, plan for some private time when you won’t be interrupted and gently explore your body to find your erogenous (highly sensitive) areas. You may want to include your partner in your discoveries, or you may choose to keep these new discoveries private. Many find that they enjoy this erotic pleasure during their shower.
  • Some women feel happy with exploring and self-stimulating. Take time to find your comfort level with this type of sexual activity. The process differs from person to person, so don’t rush or force yourself to do anything that makes you uncomfortable.

Last Medical Review: 08/29/2013
Last Revised: 08/29/2013