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This video has a compelling story told by a young English couple talking about their sexual relations and experience with in vitro fertilization after the woman’s treatment for cervical cancer. It’s nice to know that some couples are brave enough to talk about sex after cancer treatment. Sexuality affects many cancer patients and their spouses. It is important to talk about this aspect of your cancer treatment with your doctor.
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There are a wide range of reasons for changes in sexuality during cancer treatment, and the reasons relate to the treatments themselves as well as to other side effects of treatment.
Surgery has a variety of effects on sexuality. Removal of all or part of a reproductive organ decreases hormone levels, which can lead to overall loss of sexual desire. Such surgery can lead to premature menopause in younger women, and may make sexual intercourse painful or difficult for younger and older women. Surgery in the pelvic area in men can damage the nerves leading to the penis, causing erectile dysfunction. Lastly, surgery that changes body appearance, as with removal of a breast or a testicle, can affect how a person feels about his or her body image. A negative body image can change how you feel about your sexual desirability.
Chemotherapy or radiation therapy to the pelvis may damage the ovaries in women or the testicles in men, both of which can reduce the amount of hormones produced. This loss of hormones may cause a loss of sexual desire in men and women, premature menopause in younger women, and erectile dysfunction in men.
The side effects of cancer treatments also play an important role in sexuality. Side effects such as fatigue, nausea and vomiting, pain, diarrhea, and mouth sores can substantially reduce a person’s interest in sex and his or her feelings of desirability.
Some treatments are available for physical sexual issues. For example, vaginal dryness can be treated with vaginal moisturizers and lubricants. Several drugs are available for erectile dysfunction, including sildenafil (Viagra), vardenafil (Levitra), and tadalafil (Cialis). These drugs may not be appropriate for every man, and men should talk to their doctors about the risks and benefits. Hot flashes in both women and men have been relieved with low doses of antidepressants such as fluoxetine (Prozac), venlafaxine (Effexor), duloxetine (Cymbalta), and paroxetine (Paxil).
Open communication with your spouse or significant other is key to maintaining a good intimate relationship. You and your partner should share concerns and fears. Talk about ways to be intimate other than with sexual intercourse. You should both understand that it is safe to have sex during cancer treatment (unless your doctor tells you otherwise). Counseling (individual, couples, and/or sex therapy) may be helpful.