How Can Your Sex Life Be Affected By Cancer Treatment?

The Side Effects of Cancer Treatments in Men

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Changes to your sex life are not uncommon following a diagnosis of cancer. This may be a result of side effects from your leukemia, lymphoma, or myeloma, or it may be a result of the treatments you are undergoing.

Fatigue, loss of sexual interest, pain, changes in appearance, and loss of fertility are all side effects that are common in both men and women with a cancer diagnosis. However, there are some sexual side effects that are specific to men.

What Side Effects Should I Expect?

The main sexual side effect that men experience with treatment for leukemia or lymphoma is difficulty getting or maintaining an erection (erectile dysfunction, or ED). Men who have had erectile problems in the past, or men who are older, are at higher risk of developing ED following treatment.

Chemotherapy can cause damage to the tissue of the testicles and lower your level of testosterone. Because of this, you may also have decreased desire. This is especially true for men who have received high-dose chemotherapy, commonly used in bone marrow or stem cell transplants.

Radiation to the pelvic area can also cause difficulty with erections. First, it may damage and scar tissue in the veins that force blood into the penis, making it difficult to get an erection. It may also cause damage to the nerves that stimulate an erection. It usually takes some time for this type of damage to become obvious, and it may become permanent.

Men may also experience erectile problems as a result of graft versus host disease following allogeneic stem cell transplantation.

There are medications to treat ED, such as Viagara, Cialis, and Levitra. They work by increasing blood flow to the penis, thereby causing a more firm erection. Depending on the cause of your ED, your healthcare provider may also choose to put you on a testosterone replacement medication.

Behavioral therapy has also been shown to be effective. Ask your healthcare provider if these options might be right for you.

Your physical ability to have an orgasm or feel pleasure from sex will not likely be affected. If you have an interest in sexual activity but are having difficulty maintaining an erection, take some time to experiment with your partner, or by yourself, to see what will work for you. Even if you are only able to achieve a partial erection, penetrative sex may still be possible. Oral sex, use of sex toys, and sexual touching may also bring you pleasure.

Also keep in mind that while you are undergoing treatment for your leukemia or lymphoma, your immune system will not be a strong as it usually is. You may be at a higher risk of contracting a sexually transmitted infection (STI) or may have a flare-up of genital herpes or warts if you have had these in the past. Using a condom may help to decrease the risk.

Talking about erection problems and sexual side effects with your healthcare provider or partner can be embarrassing and difficult.

You may feel self-conscious about the changes your body is going through, and this can be tough on your self-esteem. But sexual side effects are no different from any other side effect, and you have a right to be fully informed about what effects your treatment may have on your health. You may also want to ask for a referral to someone who specializes in sexual health.

In speaking with your partner, it is most helpful to be open about how you feel. This may be uncomfortable, and you may fear rejection or the possibility that you will be seen as “less of a man.” But your partner loves and cares for you. The stress of a cancer diagnosis can put strain on even the healthiest of relationships, with or without changes to your sex life. It is important to say how you feel, express your feelings and fears, and hear those of your partner as well. Go slowly, listen to your body, and take your time.

Sources

Katz, A. (2007) Breaking the Silence on Cancer and Sexuality: A Handbook for Health Care Professionals. Oncology Nursing Society: Pittsburgh, PA.

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