How does cancer affect sexuality?

Sexual concerns are common for women cancer survivors, and many cancer survivors face the additional issues of a changed self-image, fatigue from their cancer therapies, and fear about death and their mortality. Although not life threatening, not having a healthy and active sex life can affect your entire relationship with your spouse or partner, as well as how you feel about yourself. The ramifications of cancer and its treatment can have a serious effect on your sexual satisfaction. Complaints of sexual dysfunction are extremely prevalent in women of all ages and with all cancer types. It is important to ask your healthcare professional for help!

Some complain of having a low libido (hypoactive desire disorder), changes in orgasm, or changes in arousal. Sexual pain disorders such as dyspareunia (pain during intercourse) and vaginismus (reflexive contracture of the pelvic and vaginal muscles) are also prevalent in the female cancer population.

The ramifications of cancer and its treatment can have a serious effect on your sexual satisfaction.

Nearly one-quarter of those who survived leukemia or Hodgkin's disease have distressing sexual dysfunction.

Sexual dysfunction is often complex and multidimensional, so an individual's treatment regimen may involve several different approaches. Healthy, satisfying sexual functioning and treatment success are affected by a variety of factors including medical illnesses, hormonal levels, relationship concerns, partner availability, underlying psychiatric disorders, general medical well-being, and cultural and religious behaviors.

Am I alone or do many cancer survivors experience sexual complaints?

According to 2005 statistics from the American Cancer Society, with increased technological treatments and advancements in diagnostics and therapeutics, an estimated 60% of all cancer survivors will live at least 5 years after their original diagnosis. In recent years, an estimated 11 million people were cancer survivors in the United States; this number is growing exponentially each year. Research shows that sexual complaints are distressing and occur in up to 90% of women who have been diagnosed with cancer. Other studies report the number of women with posttreatment sexual dysfunction as ranging from 30% to 100%.

It is important for cancer survivors to know that they are not alone. If you have some sexual complaints, you can seek help from healthcare professionals who are sensitive to your needs. You may feel embarrassed or ashamed about discussing the issues with your doctors. Maybe you feel that your doctor is ill equipped to deal with sexual issues. Once you have discussed your concerns with your healthcare provider, your physician hopefully should be able to deal with your concerns or be receptive to helping you with these deeply private issues and concerns. Should your doctor be uncomfortable or lack the technical skills to deal with the sexual side effects of cancer treatment effectively, do not get discouraged. Do not give up! Sexuality and intimacy are important quality-of-life concerns and are viewed as critical facets of health, happiness, and feeling connected with both yourself and partner. A sexual problem should never be ignored, and you should seek healthcare professionals who will support you in your quest for survivorship and sexual rehabilitation.

What causes sexual problems in the cancer survivor?

A variety of factors can interfere with a woman's sexuality. In addition to her psychological make-up and past experience with intimate relationships and medications, cancer treatments may affect her sexual response cycle and how she as a woman may respond sexually.

The following sections address some cancer treatments that may affect a woman's sexual response.

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