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Vanderbilt-Ingram Cancer CenterVanderbilt-Ingram Cancer Center


Sexuality and Cancer

What to Expect:

Cancer and its treatment can have both direct and indirect effects on sexual functioning in both men and women.

Direct effects:

  1. Certain kinds of cancer, like cervical, prostate, or colorectal cancer, may directly affect the genital organs.
  2. Treatments for these and many other types of cancer, like breast cancer, may cause changes in the body’s production of sexual hormones; these hormones have direct effects on the physiological and psychological aspects of sexual activity, both of which are necessary for optimal functioning.

Indirect effects:

  1. Additionally, treatments for cancer may cause fatigue, nausea, and pain, which can lessen sexual interest and performance.
  2. People with cancer can experience anxiety, depression, changes in how they see themselves, and changes in their overall family role; all of these can affect sexual activity.
  3. Finally, medicines that help with all of these – like opioid pain relievers, anti-nausea medicines, or some antidepressants – can affect sexual functioning.

Why is it important to pay attention to sexuality?

For many people, sexual functioning is an important part of quality of life. Sexual activity is a basic human process, and sexual problems can cause distress both for individuals and for their partners.

Sometimes people are embarrassed to discuss sexual issues with their treatment providers, or they grow resigned to having problems and don’t pursue treatment options. However, there are many ways for your treatment providers to help preserve or improve sexual function, and you should never be afraid to ask more questions or for help.

What can help:

First, start asking questions early. The degree to which sexual function is important to you may impact which treatments are best suited for you. If your doctors don’t mention anything about a treatment’s effects on sexual functioning, make sure you ask.

Second, pay attention to what’s happening for you, and keep asking questions. Unlike many treatment-related side effects, sexual problems usually don’t resolve within the first year unless treatment is provided. Try to be specific about what you’re noticing. Is it pain? Where is the pain? What exactly triggers it? Is it a lack of excitement? Difficulty with arousal? With erection or lubrication? With orgasm?

Third, professional interventions – such as medications, hormonal treatments, psychological treatments, or mechanical treatments – can help. Ask your treatment provider for advice, or a referral to a specialist (a urologist, a gynecologist, or a member of the Vanderbilt Psychological Oncology Team).

The goal of treatment is both to stop the cancer and to restore an acceptable quality of life. Sexual functioning is a significant aspect of quality of life. If you’re having sexual problems, go ahead and ask for assistance. Don’t miss out on potential help for this common cancer-related difficulty.

Additional Resources/Handouts