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- Cancer treatment
- Radiation therapy
- Managing radiation therapy side effects
- Sexuality, intimacy and fertility issues
Sexuality, intimacy and fertility issues
Radiation therapy can affect your sexuality and fertility in emotional and physical ways. These changes are common. Some changes may be only temporary while others may be permanent.
Learn more about:
- Changes in sexuality
- Using contraception
- Changes in fertility
- Effects on fertility and sexual function
- Podcast: Sex and Cancer
You may notice a lack of interest in sex or a loss of desire (libido), or you may feel too tired or unwell to want to be intimate. You may feel less sexually attractive to your partner because of changes to your body. All of these feelings are quite common. Radiation therapy can also make sexual intercourse uncomfortable, depending on where the radiation therapy is given. Talk to your doctor about ways to manage side effects that change your sex life.
A woman’s eggs (ova) and a man’s sperm can be affected by very small amounts of radiation when having radiation therapy to any part of the body. Depending on the type of radiation therapy you have, your doctor may talk to you about using a barrier method of contraception (such as a condom or female condom). If pregnancy is possible, your doctor will advise you to avoid pregnancy by using contraception during radiation therapy and for at least six months after you have finished treatment. Talk to your doctor as soon as possible if pregnancy occurs.
The risk of infertility (difficulty getting pregnant or conceiving a child) will depend on the area treated, the dose of radiation therapy and the number of treatment sessions. If you are treated with both radiation therapy and chemotherapy (chemoradiation), the risk of infertility is higher.
Radiation therapy to the pelvic area, abdomen and sexual organs can affect your fertility, which can be temporary or permanent. Radiation therapy to the brain can damage the pituitary gland, which controls the hormones the body needs to produce eggs or sperm.
If infertility is a potential side effect, your radiation oncologist will discuss it with you before treatment starts. Let them know if you think you may want to have children in the future. Ask what can be done to reduce the chance of problems and whether you should see a fertility specialist beforehand. Sometimes, however, it is not possible to properly treat the cancer and maintain fertility.
Many people feel a sense of loss when they learn they may no longer be able to have children. If you have a partner, talk to them about your feelings. Talking to a counsellor may also help.
For some ways to manage common impacts on your sex life and fertility, see Effect of radiation therapy on sexual function and fertility, and you can also see Sexuality, intimacy and cancer and Fertility and cancer.
Radiation therapy can cause the skin or internal tissue in the treatment area to become less stretchy and harden. This is known as fibrosis. It can occur weeks or months after treatment and cause pain, lack of flexibility and narrowing of passages (such as the vagina or rectum). Let your treatment team know if you develop any new pain or stiffness, as early treatment can help.
I didn’t really realise the radiation would affect my sexuality until it happened. I don’t think anyone can tell you what the pain, discomfort and exhaustion will do to you.Donna
Podcast: Sex and Cancer
Prof June Corry, Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare, St Vincent’s Hospital, VIC; Prof Bryan Burmeister, Senior Radiation Oncologist, GenesisCare Fraser Coast, Hervey Bay Hospital, and The University of Queensland, QLD; Sandra Donaldson, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council WA; Jane Freeman, Accredited Practising Dietitian (Cancer specialist), Canutrition, NSW; Sinead Hanley, Consumer; David Jolly, Senior Medical Physicist, Icon Cancer Centre Richmond, VIC; Christine Kitto, Consumer; A/Prof Grace Kong, Nuclear Medicine Physician, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; A/Prof Sasha Senthi, Radiation Oncologist, The Alfred Hospital and Monash University, VIC; John Spurr, Consumer; Chris Twyford, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Radiation Oncology, Cancer Rapid Assessment Unit and Outpatients, Canberra Hospital, ACT; Gabrielle Vigar, Nurse Unit Manager, Radiation Oncology/Cancer Outpatients, Cancer Program, Royal Adelaide Hospital, SA.
View the Cancer Council NSW editorial policy.
Sexuality, intimacy and cancer
Here we aim to help you understand and deal with the ways cancer and its treatment may affect your sexuality.