Getting back to sex

Whether you’re single or in a relationship, it may take time for you to feel physically well enough or able to cope emotionally with resuming any form of sexual activity.

How long it takes before you feel comfortable with or want to have any sexual contact is very individual, and it’s important to do what feels right for you.

Loss of sexual desire

Many women being treated for breast cancer find their desire for sexual contact decreases. Loss of desire can continue for many months after treatment but as time moves on this should start to improve.

You may want less sexual contact because of the side effects of treatment, prolonged fatigue, changes to your body and confidence about how you look, or because you can’t concentrate on anything other than your diagnosis and treatment.

Find out more about how physical effects of treatment may affect sex.

Even if your sexual activity decreased or stopped completely during and after your treatment, you may want to maintain a level of closeness with your partner. For example:

You may not feel like having sex, but you may be happy holding hands, hugging, kissing or finding your own ways of being intimate. Sexual activity can also include touch and other signs of affection that don’t always lead to oral or penetrative sex, but still result in pleasure. Taking turns giving each other a massage or taking a bath or shower together can be a way of being intimate.

Tips for getting back to sex

Getting back into sex after treatment will be a gradual process that you should take at your own pace.

When you feel ready to increase or resume sexual activity, you may want to make some time specifically for you and your partner, free from distractions.

It may help to consider what you and your partner now expect from intimacy and sex and explore new ways of sharing sexual pleasure.

The way you communicate with each other at this time is very important. Both of you need the opportunity to talk about how you’re feeling. It may not always be easy to talk about sex and you may find it easier to talk somewhere you both feel comfortable, perhaps away from the bedroom. Some people recommend getting started by writing down what you like about each other and to practise talking about these positives.

Tips for getting back to sex:

  • Try not to compare things now to how they were before you were diagnosed with breast cancer.
  • Finding ways to adapt to the changes resulting from breast cancer can take time and patience.
  • Using a vaginal lubricant before having intercourse or a vaginal moisturiser on a regular basis will ease vaginal dryness and help prevent pain.
  • It can be useful to explore your body on your own first. You may wish to use fingers or a vibrator. This can help you discover what kind of touch is still pleasant or where it is painful or sensitive.
  • Doing pelvic floor exercises increases blood flow to the vaginal area, can heighten sexual feelings and help relax these muscles.
  • Taking things slowly at first may help. Think about what kind of level of intimacy you feel comfortable with and how much energy you have. There may be practical things to consider, such as taking pain relief if necessary.
  • Creating the right atmosphere may help you relax and increase your confidence. Soft lighting, music or aromatherapy oils can help create a relaxed, comfortable and sensual atmosphere.
  • Some women feel self-conscious when naked and choose to wear soft lacy camisoles. Others wear a prosthesis and bra to bed. It’s important to do whatever makes you feel more comfortable and less anxious, even if this makes intimacy or sex less spontaneous.

Changes to your breast after treatment

If having your breasts stimulated was an important part of your sex life, losing a breast or changes to a breast through surgery and radiotherapy may have a big impact on your sexual satisfaction.

This may also affect your partner if they gained sexual pleasure from the look or feel of your breasts.

If you have had a lumpectomy or reconstruction, you will experience areas of numbness and sensitivity, or loss of sensitivity.

How you feel about having your breasts touched after treatment is very personal. You may want your partner to touch the area that was treated, or you may not want any touching at all. Some women don’t want their partner to touch the breast that wasn’t treated if it reminds them of the loss of the other one. Your partner may also feel differently about touching your breasts after treatment.

It may be helpful to tell your partner what sort of touching you want or don’t want. If you find talking about it embarrassing, you could use your hand to guide them. How you feel about having your breasts touched may change over time.

You and your partner may also want to change your focus to other areas of the body to help you feel sexually satisfied. Some women find sex toys, such as vibrators and clitoral stimulators, helpful in finding out more about what gives pleasure.

Find out more about changes to your body after treatment.


Masturbation and sensual touching, with a partner and on your own, can help remove anxiety associated with sex and can be a helpful starting point for people resuming sexual activity.

If you’re masturbating with your partner, try to start slowly, possibly using a lubricant, without any expectations. Begin with non-sexual cuddling, taking gradual steps and relearning how to give each other pleasure. 

Masturbating on your own can be a good way of finding out what’s OK and what’s not.

Explore your body to discover where and how you like to be touched, find out how responsive your body is to certain sensations and learn how you can be sexually aroused.

If you have a partner you can share your discoveries with them to make sex as fulfilling as possible.

Last reviewed: September 2013
Next planned review is September 2015

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