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Radiotherapy can sometimes cause physical changes that may affect your sex life. If you’re having problems, it may help to talk these over with your partner and your medical team.
Although it can be embarrassing to talk to health professionals about intimate concerns, remember that they are used to dealing with these issues and can suggest things that will help.
You can also get advice and support from the College of Sexual and Relationship Therapists|. You may also wish to call us and speak in confidence to one of our cancer support specialists|.
Our section about sexuality and cancer| describes practical ways of dealing with changes to sexuality.
External and internal radiotherapy to the pelvis| usually affects the ovaries. Radiotherapy to the ovaries will bring on the menopause. This may happen gradually over a few months.
The normal signs of the menopause will develop, such as hot flushes, dry skin and dryness in the vagina. This can be very distressing, particularly for younger women who are not prepared for the menopause.
Depending on the type of cancer you have, your doctor may prescribe hormone replacement therapy| (HRT), which can help overcome these problems. Occasionally - for example, when treating types of cancers called lymphomas| - the ovaries may be moved out of the treatment area and into the upper part of the abdomen. This is done by an operation before the radiotherapy treatment. Your clinical oncologist can tell you more about this.
Radiotherapy to the vaginal area can occasionally make the vagina narrower. The radiotherapy staff will show you how to use vaginal dilators and a lubricant to keep your vagina supple once you have finished treatment.
At first you may find sex uncomfortable, and it may help to use a lubricant, which you can buy at your local chemist. Having sex regularly may help prevent narrowing of the vagina, but many women will not want to have sex while they have the side effects of radiotherapy. This is very natural, and your interest in sex usually comes back as the effects of treatment wear off. In the meantime, using a dilator is an effective way of keeping your vagina healthy.
Men who have radiotherapy may have problems with sex. You may lose interest in it or become temporarily unable to get an erection (impotent) because of your anxiety about your illness or worries about the future, or even because the treatment is making you too tired to think about sex. These effects may last for a few weeks after radiotherapy has finished and can be very distressing.
Internal or external radiotherapy to the pelvis| to treat bladder|, rectal| or prostate| cancer may cause impotence. This may develop months or even years after your radiotherapy is finished. It can help to talk openly to your partner about your problems. You can also ask the radiotherapy staff about any problems or concerns you have. There are a number practical ways to help overcome impotence and these are discussed in detail in our section about sexuality and cancer|.
It’s very important for women of childbearing age to use effective contraception throughout their radiotherapy treatment. Radiotherapy could cause a miscarriage or cause a child to be born with a low birth weight or abnormalities.
If you think you may be pregnant before you start your radiotherapy treatment, it’s very important to let your clinical oncologist know. If you are pregnant, they will discuss with you whether the treatment can be delayed until the baby is born.
Content last reviewed: 1 July 2011
Next planned review: 2013
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© Macmillan Cancer Support 2013
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