Treatment and sexuality

The most common cancer treatments are surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy. These treatments can have temporary or permanent effects on your sexuality.

Surgery

Surgery aims to remove the cancer from your body. It can potentially affect your sex organs and body image.

Bowel or rectal surgery

In most cases, when part or all of the bowel or rectum containing the cancer is removed, the bowel is joined back together.

In a small number of cases, because of the position or size of the cancer, the bowel is brought to an opening on the outside of the abdomen. This procedure is called a colostomy and the opening is called a stoma. Waste (faeces) is then collected in a disposable plastic bag attached to the stoma (colostomy bag). Sometimes a stoma is only needed for a short time, but in other cases it is permanent.

If you have had a stoma, you may feel self-conscious about the change in your body’s appearance and this may affect your desire to have sex.

In men, the surgeon may not be able to preserve the nerve function in the abdomen. This may make it difficult to have and/or sustain an erection (erectile dysfunction). Erection performance may improve over time but sometimes it is permanently affected.

Pelvic surgery

This surgery (pelvic exenteration) involves removing the major organs of the pelvis, including the uterus, cervix, vagina, bladder, and rectum. It can be done to treat advanced or recurrent cancer in the pelvic area, such as cervical, uterus, vulva or vaginal cancer. People who have this surgery will require a stoma to remove faeces from the body and a surgically created opening in the skin to remove urine from the body (vesicostomy).

In men, the prostate is removed, which will affect the ability to get and maintain an erection.

In women, this surgery involves the partial or complete removal of the vagina, cervix, uterus, Fallopian tubes, ovaries and levator muscle (a broad, thin muscle situated to the side of the pelvis). It may also include removal of the vulva.

The emotional impact of having cancer and surgery is significant. It can affect your sexual identity and sexual confidence. Call 13 11 20 to talk with a counsellor or to find a sexual therapist.

This information was last reviewed in May 2013

This information has been reviewed by: Dr Lesley Yee, Sexual Health Physician and Psychotherapist, Australian Centre for Sexual Health, NSW; Sandy Hutchison, Executive Manager, Cancer Counselling, Cancer Council Queensland; Helena Green, Clinical Nurse Specialist and Breast Nurse, Sexologist, RELATE Sexuality, WA; Sam Gibson, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, St John of God Subiaco Hospital, WA; Carole Arbuckle, Cancer Support Nurse, Cancer Council Victoria; Deb Roffe, Gynaecological Research Nurse, Queensland Institute of Medical Research, QLD; and Garth Wootton, Consumer.

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