Some possible physical effects on men
It can help to know a bit about the male sex organs and how the possible effects of cancer and its treatment might affect your sex life.
The male sex organs
In boys and men, the sex organs are in the pelvic area (the lower part of the abdominal cavity). They include the prostate gland, the testicles and penis. Close by are the bladder, the lower end of the large bowel and some lymph nodes, also known as lymph glands.
Position of the bile duct
The penis and their surrounding structures
View a large version of the diagram of the penis and surrounding structures
It may be difficult to get an erection (‘hard-on’) if cancer or its treatment has damaged the nerves and blood vessels in the pelvis. Surgery or radiotherapy to the pelvic area may sometimes cause this.
Low levels of the male hormone testosterone can affect your sex drive (libido), sometimes causing a lack of interest in sex. Low levels of testosterone can also make it difficult to get an erection. This can sometimes happen if you’ve had radiotherapy or surgery to the testicles (‘balls’). It also sometimes happens if you’ve had treatment affecting the gland in the brain called the pituitary gland. The pituitary gland produces hormones that control the production of testosterone by the testicles.
Surgery to remove a testicle (called orchidectomy) doesn’t usually affect your sex life. If you have both testicles removed (which isn’t common), you’ll be prescribed testosterone to replace what can no longer be made by your testicles, so it won’t stop you having sex. But because you won’t be making sperm, you won’t be able to make someone pregnant through sex.
What can help?
If you’re having problems getting an erection, this may go away on its own after a while. However, treatments are available and these include:
- tablets that can help you have an erection, such as sildenafil (Viagra®), vardenafil (Levitra®) and tadalafil (Cialis®)
- pellets that are put into the tip of the penis
- injections into the base of the penis
- vacuum pumps that are put over the penis.
A vacuum pump is a device that you use to give yourself an erection - a doctor or nurse will show you the pump and explain how to use it. Although it sounds a bit strange to think of using a vacuum pump, it can be very effective.
It’s also important to remember that you don’t need to have a fully erect penis to have sex. There are many other ways of having satisfying sex. You can talk about this with the doctors or nurses at your hospital. You could also contact the nurses on our Support Line, or you could contact the Sexual Advice Association helpline.
We have more information about the effects of pelvic radiotherapy on men, which has been written for men of all ages.