Sexual Health

Sexual intimacy is essential in a healthy adult life, but cancer and its related treatments can make maintaining sexual health a challenge. Cancer treatment can affect both the physical and psychological aspects of sexuality.

Physical closeness and emotional intimacy are as important and rewarding during cancer treatment as any other kind of human interaction. Holding hands, hugging, kissing and sharing personal thoughts are important aspects of intimacy.

Self-image often changes after a cancer diagnosis. Side effects of surgery, radiation and chemotherapy can impact how people with cancer feel about their appearance. You may worry about being rejected by your partner or have concerns that sex or other intimate contact could cause complications.

At the same time, your partner may have questions and concerns about pushing you to be intimate or seeming insensitive. He or she may back away, hoping you will make the first move or signal when it’s all right to approach. As a result, neither person’s needs are met. It’s important for both partners to talk openly with each other about their sexual needs and concerns. It may be difficult at first, but the need for intimacy is too important to ignore.

Common Concerns

  • Loss of interest in sex
  • Too tired, worried, stressed or depressed for sex
  • Confusion over when to initiate sex
  • Decreased sensation and sexual pleasure
  • Fear of being unattractive
  • Inability to climax or fear of being unable to climax
  • Inability to enjoy a satisfying sexual experience
  • Inhibitions about dressing and acting sexy

Gender-specific Sexual Side Effects

While men and women share some common sexual side effects, others are gender-specific.

Women

  • Bladder or vaginal infections
  • Early menopause accompanied by hot flashes, vaginal dryness, irritability and irregular or no menstrual periods
  • Ovarian dysfunction
  • Vaginal atrophy
  • Vaginal discharge or itching

Men

  • Damage to nerves that control the penis
  • Decreased blood supply to the penis
  • Impotence
  • Loss of erection

Manage Sexual Side Effects

  • Ask about medications that can help with sexual problems such as impotence and vaginal dryness.
  • Ask the doctor or nurse if it is okay to have sex during chemotherapy. Most people can, but it’s a good idea to ask.
  • Wear loose pants or shorts.

Birth Control and Pregnancy

For women, it is extremely important to avoid getting pregnant while undergoing chemo. The medications can hurt the fetus, especially in the first three months of pregnancy. Women who have not gone through menopause should talk with their doctor or nurse about birth control and ways to keep from getting pregnant. Women who are currently pregnant should talk with their doctor or nurse about other treatment options.

Men should take precautions, like wearing a condom, to keep a female partner from getting pregnant. Chemotherapy can damage sperm and cause birth defects.