Dealing with an altered body image and changes in your sexuality can be difficult. You may have surgical scars, or now have a stoma. You may have experienced menopause as a result of your surgery, have gained or lost weight or be facing the temporary loss of your hair. You may be worried about what treatment means for your fertility.
Body image and intimacy
Treatment for ovarian cancer will bring changes to your body and you may find some of these changes difficult to deal with. Some of the changes you experience may be short-term, but some changes may be longer term. You may feel an altered sense of body image and sexuality.
Sexuality is not just about intercourse or masturbation, it's about how you feel about yourself, how you interact in relationships and your physical responses to intimacy and sex. It's an important part of body image and can be affected by your diagnosis and treatment.
The emotions you experience may be unexpected. You may be unsure of where to seek help and possibly feel embarrassed about discussing it. You're not alone – it’s common to have these feelings and help is available.
Changes you may experience
Loss of self-esteem and confidence
Surgery can cause a number of different physical changes including scars, hormonal changes and for some, a stoma will be an outcome of their surgery. Chemotherapy can cause hair loss, fatigue, tiredness and nausea or vomiting. All these factors can have an impact on how you feel about yourself. They may have an impact on your relationships with family, friends and intimate partners and you may question who you are now.
Lower sex drive
Your feelings around intimacy may be affected as you deal with the wide range of emotions that your diagnosis has brought. If you have a partner, they may also be feeling the same.You may find sex no longer gives you pleasure or is painful and this may affect your sex drive.
The loss of testosterone (a hormone produced by men and women) after a surgical menopause may affect your sex drive. You can talk to your GP about hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for this.
Vaginal dryness and painful sex
After a surgical menopause, the changes in your oestrogen levels (another hormone) cause changes to your vagina and the tissues around it. Your vagina may not be as moist as it was before treatment. This can make sex painful and cause the vagina to become itchy and dry. It’s very common but easy to treat. Not being sexually aroused (turned on) enough can also lead to painful sex and vice versa: painful sex can stop you getting sexually aroused.
What can I do?
Coming to terms with the new you will take time, it may take weeks, months or longer. Give yourself time to adjust to your new normal. To help with this you could:
Talk to your medical team about what body changes to expect so that you can prepare yourself.
Be prepared for relatives and friends to ask questions about your treatment and for questions or comments about your appearance. Having thought about how you will respond will make it easier. If you prefer not to talk about it, let people know.
Make healthy lifestyle changes such as being more physically active and eating a well balanced diet. Meditation and complementary therapies such as aromatherapy, reflexology, acupuncture or massage can help you to feel better and manage stress. Try our yoga and relaxation classes for gentle movement and guided relaxation from the comfort of your own home.
Be honest with yourself about your concerns and try to open up to your partner and discuss how you're feeling, when you're ready. This will help them to understand how you feel and be in a better place to offer you the understanding and support that you need. If you do have a partner, talking to each other can deepen your relationship and have a positive effect on intimacy.
Your clinical nurse specialist (CNS) can advise you or refer you to a sexual health specialist. Don't be shy about talking to a professional about it – they understand and will want to help you with this.
Take your time with sex. Painful sex can stop you from experiencing an orgasm. It may be that it's only painful when first having sex following surgery and it will settle as your body recovers. You may decide to avoid sex for a while but concentrate on kissing and cuddling or you could try longer foreplay and different positions.
Water-based lubricants can reduce vaginal dryness and improve sensation. Non-hormonal vaginal moisturisers are also available to relieve symptoms and vaginally applied oestrogen may be offered as a long-term treatment. It's worth exploring this with your CNS.
Be kind and pamper yourself. Looking after yourself can help build your self-image back up. The charity Look Good Feel Better can help with this.
Meeting other women who have experienced this can also be helpful:
Last reviewed: January 2022
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