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 areas (desire, arousal, orgasm, resolution), but 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. It is common for patients to need more time or stimulation to reach orgasm.
You should know that the following common cancer treatment side effects may affect your desire for sex:
- Hair loss
- Weight changes
- Sensitivity to tastes and smells
While 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.
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.
Coping with Sexual Changes
When sexual changes do occur, they typically do not improve right away. Finding the most helpful remedy may take time and patience because sexual changes can be caused by both psychological and physical factors.
Treatment-related sexual changes 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 possible changes. If problems occur, discuss them with your team and find out how to get help.
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. Patients in their childbearing years should be aware that 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, which implants radioactive seeds in your body, you may have to stop sexual activity briefly until the strongest radiation has left the body.
Sex can be a problem if you have bleeding in the genital area following a recent surgery or if your immune system is very weakened.