Sexuality and intimacy issues

Radiation therapy can make you feel too tired or sick to want to be intimate. Some people may feel less sexually attractive to their partner because of changes to their body. Talking to your partner or a counsellor about your concerns may help.

For more on this, call 13 11 20 or see Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer.

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Radiation therapy to the pelvic region

This can make sexual intercourse uncomfortable. You may notice a change in your sexual desire (libido). These changes are common and may be only short term.

Effects on women 

Radiation therapy to the pelvic area usually affects the ovaries. This can cause women to stop having periods, which is called menopause. The symptoms of menopause include hot flushes, dry skin, vaginal dryness, mood swings, trouble sleeping (insomnia) and tiredness. Talk to your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for ways to manage these symptoms.

If the vagina is treated with radiation therapy, it may become inflamed and intercourse could be painful. This usually settles down in the weeks after you finish treatment.

Down the track, the vagina may remain dry and can get tighter and shorter. This can make intercourse difficult or painful. Shortening and tightening of the vagina can be prevented by having regular intercourse or using a device called a vaginal dilator. Your treatment team can provide you with a dilator and instructions for how to use it.

Effects on men

Men may have problems getting and maintaining erections, and ejaculation may be painful for a few weeks after treatment. For some men, the difficulty with erections may be permanent.

Talk to your radiation oncologist if these effects are ongoing and causing you distress. They can suggest ways to manage them, such as the use of prescription medicine.

Using contraception

Your doctor may talk to you about using contraception during and after radiation therapy. Although radiation therapy often affects fertility, a woman could still become pregnant (unless the reproductive organs have been removed during surgery). A man having radiation therapy could get his partner pregnant.

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. If pregnancy is possible, your doctor will advise you to use contraception or avoid sexual intercourse 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.

In some cases, your doctor may recommend you use a barrier method of contraception (such as a condom or a female condom) for a certain period of time. This is to prevent the risk of infections if the lining of your genitals is inflamed and sore.

This information was last reviewed in December 2017
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