Sexual health and wellbeing in palliative care


Being open to change encourages healthy sexuality. You may need to develop a whole new style of openness and flexibility. It might be, for example, that you have always taken the lead in sex. This may have to change now. It could be that your favourite lovemaking positions are no longer comfortable, if only for a time. You may have seen sex as being entirely about intercourse. Clearly if penetrative sex is impossible for some reason you may want to start exploring other ways to have sexual pleasure.

Acknowledging needs

Acknowledging your own needs, and those of your partner if you have one, is essential for healthy sexuality within couples. Remember that it’s not just the person who is ill who will be affected. It can be more upsetting to watch someone we care for undergoing surgery and other treatments than to go through it all ourselves.


Sometimes it is the partner of the person who is ill who has a problem about sex.

Your partner may feel afraid to touch you for fear of hurting you. Some people may be worried that they will catch your illness through sexual contact e.g. HIV infection. Your GP would advise of all necessary precautions.

Your partner may lose desire as a direct result of the changes brought about in you. They may also feel rejected if they don’t realise that your lower sexual desire is due to the illness or its emotional effects.

Changed sex drive

It is also important to acknowledge that your partner’s sexual drive may not be reduced. Sometimes it can even increase, if intimate touch helps to reassure them in times of stress. It may be important to talk through with your partner other ways they can meet their sexual needs, such as masturbation. This can help to reduce any frustration resulting from reduced sexual contact. This may not be what you would ideally want but it can be a useful way for both of you to meet your needs.

Emotional intimacy may increase through greater communication, even when sexual intercourse is not possible.

Books and videos on sexual issues are available from shops and the internet – often they are not on display in shops so you may need to ask directly. Your local library may also have some useful books that you can borrow.

Macmillan Cancer Support supply booklets on the topic of relationships.

Last updated:
06 May 2024