- Cancer Information
- Managing side effects
- Sexuality, intimacy and cancer
- Treatment side effects and sexuality
Chemotherapy uses drugs to kill or slow the growth of cancer cells. The drugs are called cytotoxics and they particularly affect fast-growing cells such as cancer cells. Other cells that grow quickly, such as the cells involved in hair growth, can also be damaged.
Side effects of chemotherapy
The side effects of chemotherapy vary depending on the individual and the type and dose of drugs given. Most side effects are short-term and gradually improve once treatment stops, but sometimes chemotherapy causes long-term side effects. Common side effects include tiredness, nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, constipation, hair loss and mouth ulcers – all of which may affect your self-esteem and reduce your desire to have sex.
Chemotherapy can also affect the hormones linked to libido. If you have a partner, let them know why your libido has changed. Sex drive usually returns after treatment ends.
Having chemotherapy can lower the levels of hormones produced by the ovaries. For some females, this causes periods to become irregular, but they often return to normal after treatment. For other females, chemotherapy may bring on menopause.
After menopause, a female can’t conceive children with her own eggs. If this is a concern for you, speak to your doctor before treatment.
Chemotherapy for ovarian or colon cancer can be given as liquid directly into the abdominal cavity. This can cause the belly to swell a little, which may affect your body image, but the liquid will drain away after a short time.
Another common side effect in females having chemotherapy (especially if they are taking steroids or antibiotics to prevent infection) is thrush, which can cause vaginal dryness, itching or burning and a whitish discharge.
Chemotherapy for vulvar cancer may make any skin soreness caused by radiation therapy worse.
In males, chemotherapy drugs may lower the number of sperm produced and their ability to move (motility). This can cause temporary or permanent infertility. Some chemotherapy drugs can affect the nerves needed for the penis to become erect, but this is usually temporary.
Whatever your preferred method of contraception, you should also use some sort of barrier during any sexual activity to reduce the potential risk to your partner from cancer treatment, and to avoid pregnancy.
Chemotherapy – Use protection after treatment as the drugs may be released into your body fluids. For intercourse, use condoms or female condoms. Partners can wear latex gloves if using their hands for penetration. If you have anal sex, use condoms. Your doctor or nurse can you give you more details about how long you need to use protection. For oral sex, use condoms or dental dams (latex squares).
Internal radiation – Avoid sexual contact or use barrier contraception (such as condoms), during treatment.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Helena Green, Clinical Sexologist and Counsellor, inSync for Life, WA; Anita Brown-Major, Occupational Therapist, Thrive Rehab, VIC; Karina Campbell, Consumer; Nicole Kinnane, Nurse Consultant, Gynae-oncology Services, Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre, VIC; Jessica Medd, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Headway Health and Concord Hospital, NSW; Chris Rivett, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council SA; Kath Schubach, Urology Nurse Practitioner, President – Australia and New Zealand Urological Nurses Society (ANZUNS), VIC; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Health Psychology, Translational Health Research Institute (THRI), School of Medicine, Western Sydney University, NSW; Maria Voukelatos, Consumer. We would like to thank the health professionals, consumers and editorial teams who have worked on previous editions of this title.
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