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.

Protecting your partner during chemotherapy and radiation therapy

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.

Click on the icon below to download a PDF booklet on chemotherapy.

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Apple devices

The iBooks application must be installed on your Apple device before you can read the EPUB.
Different ways to download an EPUB file to your Apple device:

  • email EPUB files to yourself and transfer the attachment to iBooks.
  • copy EPUB files into DropBox (or a similar service) and use the DropBox app to send them to iBooks.
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To download an EPUB file to your Kobo from a Windows computer:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • select “Open folder to view files” to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

To download an EPUB to your Kobo from a Mac:

  • download and save the EPUB directly onto your desktop.
  • connect your Kobo to your computer using the USB cable and tap “Connect” on your eReader.
  • open your “Finder” application.
  • select “Kobo eReader” from the listed devices to view the contents of your Kobo.
  • navigate to where you have stored your EPUB file in “Finder”, probably in documents or downloads, and drag and drop it into the Kobo window. You can now disconnect your Kobo to read the eBook.

Turn on your Kobo and your EPUB will be located in “eBooks”, while a PDF will be located in “Documents”.
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Sony Reader

To download an EPUB file on your Sony Reader™:

  • ensure you have already installed the Reader™ Library for PC/Mac software
  • select the eBook you want from our website and click the link to download it.
  • connect the Reader™ to your computer.
  • open the Reader™ Library software and click “Library” in the left-hand pane and select the eBook to view it.

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Amazon Kindle 2nd Generation devices

EPUB files can’t be read on the Amazon Kindle™. However, like most eReaders, Kindle™ 2nd Generation devices are able to display PDFs. We recommend that you download the PDF version of this booklet if you would like to read it on a Kindle™.
To transfer a PDF to your Kindle™ via USB cable from your computer or Mac:

  • download the PDF directly onto your computer.
  • connect the USB cable to your computer’s USB port, and the micro USB end of the cable to your Kindle™. Note: the Kindle™ won’t be available as a reading device while it is connected to your computer until it has been disconnected.
  • open the Kindle™ drive and several folders will appear inside. The “Documents” folder is where you will need to copy or drag the PDF to.
  • safely eject your Kindle™ from your computer and unplug the USB cable. Your content will appear on the Home Screen.

Kindle also provides a Kindle Personal Documents Service that allows users to send documents as an attachment directly to your eReader. For more information on this service, visit
For more information on accessing a PDF on your Kindle™, visit, log in to your account and click on Personal Document Settings.
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Android and PC

You can also download and open eBooks on Android devices and PCs with appropriate apps or software installed. Suitable eReader apps for Android include Google Play Books, FBReader and Moon+ Reader. Suitable software for PCs include Calibre and Adobe Digital Editions.

This information was last reviewed in May 2019
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Sexuality, intimacy and cancer – PDF download
Learn more about how cancer affects sexuality, intimacy and cancer in this downloadable fact sheet