Cancer Treatment and Women's Sexual Health

Cancer Treatment and Women's Sexual Health

There is almost no word that is more feared than ‘cancer.’ But after the shock of diagnosis and the reality of treatment is overcome, the sexual side effects of diagnosis and treatment are eventually encountered.

Treatments such as surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy cause physiological changes that can result in sexual dysfunction. There are also psychological effects of a cancer diagnosis on a woman and her partner related to body self-image, having the role of care-taker or for fear of seeming selfish.

Breast and gynecologic cancer treatments can result in difficulties with sexual interest, arousal, lubrication, absent or muted orgasm, and increased sexual pain. For many women, resuming a sexual identity is very important in feeling ‘normal’ again.

Almost 8% of women will be diagnosed with breast cancer during their lifetime and 25% of them will be pre-menopausal. Surgery can leave significant physical scars that alter a woman’s self image.  Chemotherapy and lymph node dissection can cause lymphedema, hair loss, and menopausal symptoms. Many women will report decreased breast sensation after mastectomy which contributes to loss of sexual interest.

Chemotherapy is often associated with loss of sexual interest both due to the physical effects (nausea, hair loss, and weight loss or gain) that can make a woman feel unattractive and from the very rapid induction of menopause, which can cause vaginal dryness and pain. Hormone ablation will similarly lead to menopausal symptoms.

Radiation therapy for ovarian, cervical, vaginal or bladder cancer can cause radiation-associated menopause including vaginal dryness, night sweats, and hot flashes. Radiation may also cause the vagina to become inflamed and tender and can lead to a thickened, short and tight vagina.

Radical hysterectomy is performed in some women with cervical or uterine cancer and can result in a shortened vagina, surgical menopause and disrupt the nerves that enable proper orgasm.  
Radical cystectomy is removal of the bladder performed for advanced bladder cancer and can result in a short and tender vagina; surgical menopause and sexual inconvenience due to the presence of an external urine collection device.

Vulvectomy is performed for cancer of the outer vagina and involves removal of the entire vulva, including the labia majora and labia minora as well as the clitoris. This surgery can lead to reduced sensitivity and difficulty obtaining an orgasm.

Treatment for Sexual Problems as a Result of Cancer Therapy

Despite all of the potential for sexual problems after cancer treatment, there are effective treatments to help women affected by cancer feel whole again.

Improved silicone based lubricants can help condition and lubricate the vagina for those with premature menopause.

Vaginal dilators can be used after surgery or radiation, although best used during radiation, to maintain the length and width of the vagina.

Hormone therapy can be safe in many gynecologic cancers and even after an adequate time following curative treatment for some women with breast cancer. A close relationship between your sexual medicine doctor and cancer doctor is crucial to maximizing quality of life and freedom from cancer recurrence.

Sexual therapy for both partners can help maintain body self-image and address ‘care-giver’ issues that may develop during the course of cancer therapy. A safe and comfortable environment will allow cancer survivors to express their worries, cope with depression and anxiety, learn relaxation techniques, explore new ways to experience sexual pleasure and intimacy.

Finally, communicating to your cancer doctor that sexual health is an important outcome after therapy will make sure that you have the support and resources you need to accomplish all of your therapeutic goals.

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Round Rock,TX 78681

Phone 512-238-0762
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Austin, TX 78750

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Austin, TX 78745

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