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Cancer Awareness & Prevention

Cancer’s effect on sexuality

Fatigue, nausea and emotional symptoms are common side effects of cancer treatments. Cancer can impact all areas of emotional and physical well-being, but few may know that cancer also can affect sexuality.

Although it is entirely possible for men and women undergoing cancer treatments to have healthy, intimate relationships, the Mayo Clinic notes that many people find that cancer causes a range of side effects that make sex more difficult. Men experiencing pelvic cancers may experience difficulty with sexual activity both during and after cancer treatment than those who have other cancers. In fact, erectile dysfunction is the most common sexual side effect of cancer treatments among men.

Erectile dysfunction for men or the inability to achieve intimacy for women are not the only sexual side effects of cancer treatment. Cancer's affect on emotions and self-identity plays a large role in how people think about intimate behavior. Disappointment in the way one's body looks, whether through weight loss/gain, hair loss, mastectomy or other physical side effects of cancer treatment, can impact one's sexual identity. The American Cancer Society also says that sexual desire and energy levels change during treatment. Individuals may have less interest in sex because of the physical and emotional demands of cancer treatments. Furthermore, medications and the treatment itself may lead to side effects that make it challenging to engage in intimate behaviors.

Cancer and subsequent treatments also may have an effect on fertility, and this is something that both men and women need to be aware of. Menstrual cycles may become irregular, potentially making conception more challenging. Cancer patients should discuss their plans to have children with their physicians before choosing treatment plans. After treatment, testing to assess fertility and if it is the right time to once again try for children may be necessary, as a pregnancy during or just after chemotherapy can be complicated by birth defects, advises the MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Treatment-related sexual changes can be long-term and permanent, or they may transient. Patients should speak with their health care team about any concerns regarding their cancer's affect on sexuality. While some men and women may be hesitant to discuss sexuality with their physicians, they should know that doctors have experience discussing sexuality and cancer treatments with their patients, and that experience can calm any concerns patients may have.