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Sexuality and Reproductive Issues

Factors Affecting Sexual Function in People With Cancer

Both physical and psychological factors contribute to the development of sexual dysfunction. Physical factors include loss of function due to the effects of cancer therapies, fatigue, and pain. Surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation therapy may have a direct physical impact on sexual function. Other factors that may contribute to sexual dysfunction include pain medications, depression, feelings of guilt from misbeliefs about the origin of the cancer, changes in body image after surgery, and stresses due to personal relationships. Getting older is often associated with a decrease in sexual desire and performance, however, sex may be important to the older person's quality of life and the loss of sexual function can be distressing.

Surgery-Related Factors

Surgery can directly affect sexual function. Factors that help predict a patient's sexual function after surgery include age, sexual and bladder function before surgery, tumor location and size, and how much tissue was removed during surgery. Surgeries that affect sexual function include breast cancer, colorectal cancer, prostate cancer, and other pelvic tumors.

Breast Cancer

Sexual function after breast cancer surgery has been the subject of much research. Surgery to save or reconstruct the breast appears to have little effect on sexual function compared with surgery to remove the whole breast. Women who have surgery to save the breast are more likely to continue to enjoy breast caressing, but there is no difference in areas such as how often women have sex, the ease of reaching orgasm, or overall sexual satisfaction. Having a mastectomy, however, has been linked to a loss of interest in sex. Chemotherapy has been linked to problems with sexual function.

Colorectal Cancer

Sexual and bladder dysfunctions are common complications of surgery for rectal cancer. The main cause of problems with erection, ejaculation, and orgasm is injury to nerves in the pelvic cavity. Nerves can be damaged when their blood supply is disrupted or when the nerves are cut.

Prostate Cancer

Newer nerve-sparing techniques for radical prostatectomy are being debated as a more successful approach for preserving erectile function than radiation therapy for prostate cancer. Long-term follow-up is needed to compare the effects of surgery with the effects of radiation therapy. Recovery of erectile function usually occurs within a year after having a radical prostatectomy. The effects of radiation therapy on erectile function are very slow and gradual occurring for two or three years after treatment. The cause of loss of erectile function differs between surgery and radiation therapy. Radical prostatectomy damages nerves that make blood vessels open wider to allow more blood into the penis. Eventually the tissue does not get enough oxygen, cells die, and scar tissue forms that interferes with erectile function. Radiation therapy appears to damage the arteries that bring blood to the penis.

Brachytherapy (internal radiation therapy using radioactive implants) is being used more often to treat prostate cancer. With brachytherapy alone, ejaculation and erectile function are better preserved than when external radiation and/or hormone therapy are added. Radiation damage to nerves and blood vessels may occur with brachytherapy, and higher doses of radiation may cause more damage.

After treatment for prostate cancer with radical prostatectomy or radiation therapy, many patients report trouble with orgasm. Problems can include:

Problems related to orgasm after prostate cancer treatment can be managed, but at this time, there is no treatment that will return orgasm to the way it was before surgery. Pain during orgasm may occur in the penis, abdomen, or rectum. Pain can be treated with alpha-blockers, drugs that relax muscle tissue in blood vessels and in the prostate gland. Incontinence or leakage of urine from the bladder during orgasm can be managed by limiting fluid intake and emptying the bladder before sexual activity or by using condoms, if the leakage is minor.

The penis may be 1 to 2 centimeters shorter after a radical prostatectomy. This shortening of the penis may be related to nerve injury or structural changes that can occur right after surgery or months after surgery.

Testicular Cancer

Testicular cancer and its treatment can affect sexual well-being. Most study results suggest that problems with sexual function are usually short-term. Function improves later to about the same level as seen in men who do not have testicular cancer.

Other Pelvic Tumors

Men who have surgery to remove the bladder, colon, and/or rectum may improve recovery of erectile function if nerve-sparing surgical techniques are used. The sexual side effects of radiation therapy for pelvic tumors are similar to those after prostate cancer treatment.

Women who have surgery to remove the uterus, ovaries, bladder, or other organs in the abdomen or pelvis may experience pain and loss of sexual function depending on the amount of tissue/organ removed. With counseling and other medical treatments, these patients may regain normal sensation in the vagina and genital areas and be able to have pain-free intercourse and reach orgasm.

Chemotherapy-Related Factors

Chemotherapy is associated with a loss of desire and decreased frequency of intercourse for both men and women. The common side effects of chemotherapy such as nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, constipation, mucositis, weight loss or gain, and loss of hair can affect an individual's sexual self-image and make him or her feel unattractive.

For women, chemotherapy may cause vaginal dryness, pain with intercourse, and decreased ability to reach orgasm. In older women, chemotherapy may increase the risk of ovarian cancer. Chemotherapy may also cause a sudden loss of estrogen production from the ovaries. The loss of estrogen can cause shrinking, thinning, and loss of elasticity of the vagina, vaginal dryness, hot flashes, urinary tract infections, mood swings, fatigue, and irritability. Young women who have breast cancer and have had surgeries such as removal of one or both ovaries, may experience symptoms related to loss of estrogen. These women experience high rates of sexual problems since there is a concern that estrogen replacement therapy, which may decrease these symptoms, could cause the breast cancer to return. For women with other types of cancer, however, estrogen replacement therapy can usually resolve many sexual problems. Also, women who have graft-versus-host disease (a reaction of donated bone marrow or peripheral stem cells against a person's tissue) following bone marrow transplantation may develop scar tissue and narrowing of the vagina that can interfere with intercourse.

For men, sexual problems such as loss of desire and erectile dysfunction are more common after a bone marrow transplant because of graft-versus-host disease or nerve damage. Occasionally chemotherapy may interfere with testosterone production in the testicles. Testosterone replacement may be necessary to regain sexual function.

Radiation Therapy-Related Factors

Like chemotherapy, radiation therapy can cause side effects such as fatigue, nausea and vomiting, diarrhea, and other symptoms that can decrease feelings of sexuality. In women, radiation therapy to the pelvis can cause changes in the lining of the vagina. These changes eventually cause a narrowing of the vagina and formation of scar tissue that results in pain with intercourse, infertility and other long term sexual problems. Women should discuss concerns about these side effects with their doctor and ask about the use of a vaginal dilator.

For men, radiation therapy can cause problems with getting and keeping an erection. The exact cause of sexual problems after radiation therapy is unknown. Possible causes are nerve injury, a blockage of blood supply to the penis, or decreased levels of testosterone. Sexual changes occur very slowly over a period of six months to one year after radiation therapy. Men who had problems with erectile dysfunction before getting cancer have a greater risk of developing sexual problems after cancer diagnosis and treatment. Other risk factors that can contribute to a greater risk of sexual problems in men are cigarette smoking, history of heart disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Hormone Therapy-Related Factors

Hormone therapy for prostate cancer can decrease normal hormone levels and cause a decrease in sexual desire, erectile dysfunction, and problems reaching orgasm. Younger men do not always experience the same degree of sexual dysfunction. Some treatment centers are experimenting with delayed or intermittent hormone therapy to prevent sexual problems. It is not yet known if these modified treatments affect the long-term survival of younger men.

Women older than 45 years who are treated with adjuvant tamoxifen therapy may have slightly more hot flashes, night sweats, and vaginal discharge. Studies show that patients who take tamoxifen do not have less sexual activity, but may have slightly less sexual desire and more problems reaching orgasm.

In a large study of women with breast cancer who were treated with adjuvant hormone therapy, patients who took exemestane, a type of aromatase inhibitor, had fewer hot flashes and less vaginal discharge than those who took tamoxifen. However, patients who took exemestane had more vaginal dryness, bone pain, and sleep disorders than patients who took tamoxifen.

Psychological Factors

Patients recovering from cancer often have anxiety or guilt that previous sexual activities may have caused their cancer. Some patients believe that sexual activity may cause the cancer to return or pass the cancer to their partner. Discussing their feelings and concerns with a health care professional is important for patients. Misbeliefs can be corrected and patients can be reassured that cancer is not passed on through sexual contact.

Loss of sexual desire and a decrease in sexual pleasure are common symptoms of depression. Depression is more common in patients with cancer than in the general healthy population. It is important that patients discuss their feelings with their doctor. Getting treatment for depression may be helpful in relieving sexual problems. (Refer to the PDQ summary on Depression for more information.)

Cancer treatments may cause physical changes that affect how an individual sees his or her physical appearance. This view can make a man or woman feel sexually unattractive. It is important that patients discuss these feelings and concerns with a health care professional. Patients can learn how to deal effectively with these problems.

The stress of being diagnosed with cancer and undergoing treatment for cancer can make existing problems in relationships even worse. The sexual relationship can also be affected. Patients who do not have a committed relationship may stop dating because they fear being rejected by a potential new partner who learns about their history of cancer. One of the most important factors in adjusting after cancer treatment is the patient's feeling about his or her sexuality before being diagnosed with cancer. If patients had positive feelings about sexuality, they may be more likely to resume sexual activity after treatment for cancer.

Childhood Cancer Survivors

Being treated for cancer as a child may lead to sexual problems in adulthood. Childhood cancer survivors who were diagnosed at age 21 years or younger with different types of cancer were surveyed in their late teens, twenties, or thirties. About one-half of the women and one-third of the men in the study reported trouble with sexual function, including problems becoming aroused or lack of interest in sex. Childhood cancer survivors who had emotional and health problems were more likely to have problems with sexual function.

Although women in the study reported more sexual problems, men reported more feelings of distress. While this study did not directly link a cancer diagnosis or cancer treatment with sexual problems, it found that childhood cancer survivors, especially men, had more problems with sexual function than the same age group with no history of cancer.