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Reconnecting after painful sex

Posted on: Thursday, 22nd February 2024 by Experts at the Leone Centre and Jo's Cervical Cancer Trust

Cervical cancer touches the lives of countless women around the world. Intimacy is a cornerstone of human connection, but for many of those living with or beyond cervical cancer, the experience can be affected by a distressing and often taboo issue — painful sex. 

If you have experienced painful sex following your diagnosis or treatment, this could then impact your sex life moving forward. You might feel worried or anxious about trying to have sex again. You may experience changes in how you relate to yourself and your sexual identity, and this can affect your self-esteem and the way you interact with your partner(s). You also could find communication difficult when trying to discuss these with any partners, and they may also be uncertain about how to help. This is all completely valid. 

By implementing strategies for both having sex and discussing it, you may find it easier to reestablish your sexual confidence.

Tips to reconnect after painful sex

Here are some tips which may help you to reconnect to yourself and any sexual partners following painful sex. It may be best not to try all of these at once, as this could increase feelings of stress — but keep an open mind and find out what works for you.

Non-sexual physical intimacy

When it comes to physical intimacy, you could start by removing sex from the equation altogether. By spending time with your partner and exploring your body with acceptance, you can rebuild your relationship with each other’s bodies, and with yourself as a sexual person after a difficult experience. This could look like:

  • Intentionally making time to focus on each other
  • Scheduling a date night
  • Giving each other a massage 
  • Having a bath or shower together. 

Cultivating emotional intimacy can have a powerful, positive impact on physical intimacy.

“Painful sex can make the idea of trying it again seem daunting, so it might be helpful for you and your partner to think about sex in a different way — talk about it, 'make out' like you're teenagers again, rather than trying to have sex in the way you usually do, and take your time. And most importantly, don't suffer in silence. If things aren't getting any better, talk to someone — your GP, a sex therapist, or your specialist.” – Martina Bador, Leone Centre Psychosexual Therapist

Body image is a big part of how much we enjoy sex, and cancer treatments can result in physical changes you may not feel comfortable with at first. By working to relearn your body and accept these differences, you may find that sex is more enjoyable and comfortable. If you are struggling to reconcile with these changes, counselling and therapy can be very effective for regaining self-confidence and self-esteem.


Mindfulness and meditation can also be very helpful for reducing stress and increasing sex drive. Anxiety impacts your ability to connect fully with yourself and others, and by decreasing your stress levels, you may find it easier to become aroused and have pleasurable sex.


Psychosexual therapy can be incredibly effective for reestablishing your sexual identity after cervical cancer and treatment. Psychosexual therapy is talking therapy which specifically helps resolve issues and difficulties around sex, providing a safe, non-judgmental space. It can let you engage with topics which might otherwise feel awkward and help normalise conversations about sex. It can also allow you to find out whether your difficulties with sex are physical or psychological and help you to gain confidence in, and understanding of, your body and sexuality.


One of the crucial elements to a healthy sex life, for anyone, is communication. Healthy communication enables you to discuss and process any changes to your sex life, and can be achieved through counselling and therapy. This could be with a partner or by yourself. Counselling, particularly psychosexual counselling, allows you to engage with topics which you may find difficult to discuss in a confidential, empathetic space, helping to ease communication and healthily resolve conflict, avoidance or withdrawal. 

Communication can also be sexual in itself. Sex is most pleasurable when both partners are relaxed and aroused, and you may find that starting verbally prolongs and heightens arousal. This won’t look the same for everyone, as arousal is very personal. It could be: 

  • “Dirty talk”: descriptions of what you want to do together or how you are feeling. 
  • Intellectually stimulating conversation.
  • Time to just talk, where discussing stressful topics is off-limits. 

“Finding ways to communicate with partners is key to feeling more confident about dating and being intimate. It is common to feel overwhelmed and want to avoid intimacy, especially if you are anticipating pain or difficulty. There are lots of useful tools to help you re-engage with yourself in a sexual way, and it can take time so be patient.”  – Julia Pugh, Leone Centre Psychosexual Therapist, previously a Clinical Nurse Specialist

During sex

When deciding if you want to have sex again, it’s vital that you feel as confident as possible. A partner who is understanding, empathetic and who makes you feel relaxed, and a comfortable setting will make a huge difference. If you can, try to communicate how you are feeling — emotionally and physically. Your partner should do their best to support you, but they can’t know what feels good and what doesn’t unless you tell them. 

Practical tips

“Cervical cancer treatments can cause physical changes, including menopause and changes to the vaginal tissues. Alongside psychotherapy, practical things that can help include HRT, localised oestrogen, vaginal moisturiser, vaginal lubrication, dilator therapy, and pelvic floor exercises to reduce the depth of penetration; your healthcare provider should be able to advise on these things.” – Lynn Buckley, Leone Centre Psychosexual Therapist, previously an Advanced Specialist Cancer Nurse 

Do what feels right

 Finally, try not to have any expectations of the sex. Approaching your sex life and body with curiosity and acceptance and aiming for physical closeness rather than traditional markers of what “should” happen during sex, such as orgasm, can help you relax and feel comfortable. This ultimately supports pleasurable sex.

Sex can be an important part of love, life and relationships, and disturbances to our sex lives and sexuality are legitimate causes to be upset. It’s worth noting that sexual interest and activity fluctuate, and that your body has been through a lot. Be kind to yourself, go at a pace you’re comfortable with and don’t feel rushed to return to sex after a painful experience.


Thank you to our partners at the Leone Centre for sharing their top tips on reconnecting after painful sex. Head over to their website to find out more about them and the work they do >