Sexual Effects From Cancer Treatments

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sexual effects from cancer treatments

Lifestyle Changes That Impact Menopause

Sexual effects from cancer treatments some women experience are manageable. Rightly, sex might be the last thing on your mind when you are considering cancer treatment options. As well as the anxiety that comes with a cancer diagnosis. However, as you begin to feel more relaxed during cancer treatment and later, your goal is how to return to a “normal” life. Therefore, as quickly as possible, many women want to include restarting sexual intimacy with their spouses. Sadly, sex becomes more difficult, as cancer treatment can cause physical changes in women.

Find out if you are at risk of sexual effects from cancer treatments and which medical treatments can cause sexual side effects.

What Triggers Sexual Side Effects?

Women who have received treatment for breast or gynecologic cancers are most likely to experience sexual effects from cancer treatments. Such women find sex painful or difficult. Also, other cancers anywhere in the pelvic region can cause sexual effects. These include cancers of the bladder, cervical, colon, ovarian, rectal, uterine, and vaginal.

Aside from the physical changes to your body caused by the treatment for each of these cancers, there is also an impact on your emotions. For instance, you may be worried and tired about your diagnosis, your treatment, or your prognosis. These are emotions that can equally affect your attitude toward sex and intimacy with your partner.

What Are The Usual Sexual Side Effects?

The sexual side effects are dependent upon the treatment received and your type and stage of cancer. The most usually reported side effects among women are:

  • Struggle to orgasm
  • No desire for  sex
  • Pain during penetration
  • Irritation from vaginal dryness

Nevertheless, not all women will experience these side effects. Your doctor is in a better position to inform whether your specific treatment will cause any of these.

What Cancer Treatments Cause Sexual Side Effects?

sexual side ffects of cancer treatments

Cancer treatments that are more likely to cause sexual side effects are:


Many women experience a loss of libido during and after chemotherapy. In addition, the side effects of the treatment, such as tiredness, nausea, hair loss, and weight loss or gain, can make you feel undesirable. Though the side effects normally fade at the end of the treatment, it may take time to restore your self-confidence and desire for sex.

Furthermore, the sudden loss of estrogen production in your ovaries due to chemotherapy can lead to thinning of the vagina and vaginal dryness. Both can cause pain during penetration. Your doctor may prescribe hormone therapy to reduce the sexual effects, depending on your cancer type.

Radiation therapy

Sexual effects from cancer treatments related to radiation therapy are most common in women receiving treatment in their pelvic area. Radiation to the pelvis causes damage to the ovaries, and changes in the vaginal lining. The results are vaginal dryness or hot flashes.  The vagina can also become inflamed and tender to make penetration during sex uncomfortable.

It is important to discuss with your doctor what you can expect from specific radiation treatments and different options. This is because some side effects may be preventable. For instance, surgery to relocate your ovaries to another part of your body may spare you the damage of radiation, and preserve your fertility.


The effect of surgery on your ability to have sex depends on the type of cancer, its location, and its size. Surgical procedures that are likely to cause sexual side effects are:

Radical hysterectomy

This surgery involves the removal of the uterus, cervix, and part of the vagina.

Radical cystectomy

This is the removal of the bladder, uterus, ovaries, fallopian tubes, cervix, the front wall of your vagina, and urethra. A reconstruction of the vagina is needed with this surgery, which may shorten or narrow the vagina, thus making sex painful.

Abdominoperineal resection (AP)

Your doctor removes the lower colon and rectum, and subsequent experiences of pain in your vagina without the cushion of the rectum.


The entire vulva as well as the clitoris – a major part of sexual arousal in women – is removed making the area less sensitive and more difficult to reach orgasm.

Lumpectomy or Mastectomy

One or both breasts may mean losing sensation in the breast area. Women who undergo breast-saving surgery, rather than removing both breasts are likely to enjoy breast caressing. You may also be self-conscious of your scars after surgery, which can cause a loss in sexual desire.


If you have hormone-sensitive cancer, you might receive hormone therapy through the removal of your ovaries or through medications, such as Tamoxifen. The removal of ovaries can cause menopausal symptoms including vaginal thinning and dryness.

What Can You Do To Regain Your Sexual Function?

If you experience sexual effects from cancer treatments, find out as much as you can about what is hindering your sexual function. This will help you feel more in control of the situation and see you through the different treatment options. You may also want to:

Be creative in your intimacy

Intercourse is not the only option for closeness with your partner. Consider spending more time together talking, cuddling, or caressing. Connecting in other ways might help make you feel more relaxed. And less worried about the sexual side effects you are having.

Have a chat with your healthcare team

You might be embarrassed to talk about the sexual side effects you are experiencing. But there is no need to be. Write down your questions if it makes you feel more relaxed. Even, your doctor may be uncomfortable or cautious to discuss sex. If that is the case get a referral to a specialist. Or seek support from other members of your healthcare team, such as nurses and counselors.

Open up to your partner

sexual effects from cancer treatments

Let your spouse know what you are going through and how he or she can help you cope. For instance, you might find that using a lubricant eases your vaginal dryness. While changing positions helps you avoid genital pain during sex. So, together you can find solutions to ease you back into fulfilling sex life.

Discuss with other cancer survivors

Your healthcare team might recommend a support group in your area.  If not, do a quick search online and link up with other cancer survivors.

Bottom Line

It may simply take time for you to regain your sexual function after cancer treatment. While that can be frustrating, remember that if you had a positive and satisfying sex life before cancer, you will be able to get back on track after your treatment.

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