Effects of radiotherapy on women

Radiotherapy can cause side effects that may affect your sex life. It may cause skin reactions. The treatment area can become sore and itchy, which can make sex difficult. This can also affect the way you feel about how you look.

Radiotherapy can also cause extreme tiredness. This can go on for weeks or months. You may find you’re too tired to have sex.

Radiotherapy to the pelvic area (the anus, rectum, bladder, vagina, vulva, cervix or womb) may cause other side effects. These may include:

  • diarrhoea and feeling sick (nausea)
  • pain or bleeding in the bladder or rectum
  • vaginal bleeding
  • hormonal changes.

Most of these side effects are temporary and there are ways to cope with them. However if the ovaries are affected by the radiotherapy, this may cause a permanent menopause. Talk to your nurse specialist about this.

Radiotherapy and sexuality

Radiotherapy treats cancer by using high-energy rays that destroy the cancer cells, while doing as little harm as possible to normal cells. It can either be given as external radiotherapy from outside the body using x-rays, or from within the body as internal radiotherapy.

Usually there’s no medical reason to stop having sex during external radiotherapy. If you’re having internal radiotherapy, you will have to talk to your doctor or specialist nurse about how it will affect your sex life.

Sex and Cancer - Scott and Rebecca's story

Scott and Rebecca tell their story of how cancer has affected their sexual relationship.

About our cancer information videos

Sex and Cancer - Scott and Rebecca's story

Scott and Rebecca tell their story of how cancer has affected their sexual relationship.

About our cancer information videos


Skin reactions

Radiotherapy can cause a skin reaction. How your skin reacts will depend on the amount of radiotherapy you have. You may find the skin in the treatment area becomes red and sore or itchy. The skin in the groin, vulva, perineum and anal areas can be very sensitive. If a skin reaction does occur, it can make sex difficult.

A possible long-term side effect of radiotherapy is damage to the tiny blood vessels close to the surface of the skin. This will cause red, spidery marks on the skin and is called telangiectasia. These blood vessels can be delicate and are more likely to bleed. Telangiectasia may affect the way you feel about how you look. It can also make sexual contact difficult if your skin, vulva, or the lining of your vagina or rectum is fragile.


Tiredness

Radiotherapy can cause fatigue (tiredness that doesn’t go away with rest). This can last for several weeks or months.

Sex may be one of the last things on your mind, or you may just be too tired to have sex.


Radiotherapy to the pelvic area

Radiotherapy may be given to the pelvic area to treat cancers of the anus, rectum, bladder, vagina, vulva, cervix or womb.

Having radiotherapy to the pelvic area can affect the way you have sex. This can be more of a problem if you’ve also had surgery to your pelvic area.

If you have radiotherapy as part of your treatment for leukaemia (total body irradiation) or lymphoma, you may also have some vaginal changes.

If you have high-dose treatment with a stem cell or bone marrow transplant, you may develop graft versus host disease (GVHD). This can affect the vaginal tissues, which can cause sexual difficulties.

Radiotherapy to the pelvic area can also cause other side effects, such as:

  • diarrhoea and nausea (feeling sick)
  • inflammation of the bladder (cystitis) or rectum, which can cause pain and bleeding
  • vaginal bleeding.

These side effects can either make sex difficult or affect your desire to have sex. Most of these side effects are temporary, but very rarely they can be permanent.

We have more information about the possible side effects of pelvic radiotherapy.


Hormonal changes

Radiotherapy to your pelvic area can affect your ovaries and reduce the amount of female hormones they produce. The production of hormones gradually decreases over about three months. This is usually permanent, but occasionally it may be temporary for some women.

If you haven’t already had your natural menopause, the hormonal changes can cause menopausal symptoms. Until it’s confirmed that you have had the menopause, you may be advised to use contraception to avoid getting pregnant.

Women who have already had their menopause will have far fewer hormonal changes than women who hadn’t had the menopause before starting radiotherapy.

Back to Effects of treatment on a woman's sexuality

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