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Sexuality & Cancer

Cancer treatment can cause a variety of sexual changes. Even though the causes may be different – surgery, chemotherapy, hormone treatment or radiation – the resulting changes are often similar. Some patients experience changes in all phases of sexual response (desire, arousal, orgasm, resolution), while others experience none.

The most common sexual change for cancer patients is an overall loss of desire. For men, erection problems are also a common problem. For women, vaginal dryness and pain with sexual activity are frequent. Most men and women are still able to have an orgasm even if cancer treatment interferes with erections or vaginal lubrication, or involves removing some parts of the pelvic organs. However, it is common for patients to need more time or stimulation to reach orgasm.

Cancer treatment side effects, such as fatigue, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, hair loss, weight changes, scars and sensitivity to tastes and smells may leave you feeling exhausted and uncomfortable. These side effects consume so much energy that sex may be low on your priority list at times. Although medications are available to treat many of these symptoms, some of these same drugs can decrease sexual desire or make it harder to reach orgasm.

Coping with Sexual Changes

When sexual changes do occur, they generally do not improve right away, often persisting until a good remedy is found. Finding the most helpful remedy may take time and patience because sexual changes can be caused by both psychological and physical factors.

Furthermore, treatment-related sexual changes caused may be long-term or permanent. Talk with your health care team before treatment to learn about what to sexual changes to expect from your cancer or cancer treatment. By knowing what may happen, you may be better prepared and more knowledgeable about potential sexual changes. If problems do occur, discuss them with your team and find out how to get help.

It is usually safe to have sex during cancer treatment unless your doctor tells you not to. Talk with your doctor before participating in sexual activities.

If you are having sex during chemotherapy, you may wish to use barrier protection, such as condoms or dental dams (for oral sex), since chemotherapy chemicals can be found in semen or vaginal fluid. More importantly for patients in their childbearing years, a pregnancy during or just after chemotherapy can be complicated by birth defects.

Radiation therapy from an external machine does not make you radioactive or endanger your partner in any way. If you are undergoing brachytherapy, in which radioactive seeds are implanted in your body, you may have to stop sexual activity for a brief period until the strongest radiation has left the body.

Sex can be a problem if you have bleeding in the genital area if you have recently had surgery or if your immune system is very weakened.

Tendrils: Sexual Renewal for Women After Cancer Treatment

Tendrils LogoTendrils is an internet-based counseling program to help women recover sexual function and satisfaction after cancer treatment. Web-based learning tools include words, pictures, animations and videos. The goal of this research study is to determine whether the Tendrils program can help women improve their sex lives when used either as a self-help tool, or in combination with brief sexual counseling by a health care professional.

Study investigators hope to enroll 300 women from the greater Houston area for Tendrils. 


© 2014 The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center