Sexuality is a complex characteristic that involves the physical, psychological, interpersonal, and behavioral aspects of a person. Recognizing that "normal" sexual functioning covers a wide range is important. Ultimately, sexuality is defined by each patient and his/her partner according to sex, age, personal attitudes, and religious and cultural values.
Many types of cancer and cancer therapies can cause sexual dysfunction. Research shows that approximately one-half of women who have been treated for breast and gynecologic cancers experience long-term sexual dysfunction. Men who have been treated for prostate cancer report problems with erectile dysfunction that varies depending on the type of treatment. Less is known about how other types of cancer, especially other solid tumors, affect sexuality.
An individual's sexual response can be affected in many ways. The causes of sexual dysfunction are often both physical and psychological. The most common sexual problems for people who have cancer are loss of desire for sexual activity in both men and women, problems achieving and maintaining an erection in men, and pain with intercourse in women. Men may also experience inability to ejaculate, ejaculation going backward into the bladder, or the inability to reach orgasm. Women may experience a change in genital sensations due to pain, loss of sensation and numbness, or decreased ability to reach orgasm.
Unlike many other physical side effects of cancer treatment, sexual problems may not resolve within the first year or two of disease-free survival. These problems may even increase over time and can interfere with the return to a normal life. Patients recovering from cancer should discuss their concerns about sexual problems with a health care professional.