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.
hardtimes: Cancer and Men's Sexual Health
The hardtimes: Cancer and Men’s Sexual Health website gives information on how different cancers and their treatments affect men’s sex lives, how to find expert medical help for a sexual problem and how to use self-help strategies to prevent or overcome cancer-related damage to your sex life. If you are a male cancer patient over age 18 at MD Anderson or Cooper MD Anderson, and you have a concern or problem related to cancer and sexuality, you may be able to participate in testing our new website. The website can be used on your computer, tablet or smartphone. We will record your website usage and ask you to complete short questionnaires.
If you are interested in participating in this research project, please contact Evan Odensky, Senior Research Coordinator, at firstname.lastname@example.org.
- hardtimes flier (pdf)