- Cancer Information
- Managing side effects
- Sexuality, intimacy and cancer
- Treatment side effects and sexuality
- Radiation therapy
Radiation therapy (also called radiotherapy) uses a controlled dose of radiation to kill cancer cells or damage them so they cannot grow, multiply or spread. It can be delivered externally or internally.
Learn more about:
- Side effects of radiation therapy
- Radiation therapy to the pelvic area
- Radiation therapy to the breast
- Radiation therapy to the testicles
Side effects often relate to the part of the body treated, and may include:
- fatigue – your body uses a lot of energy dealing with the effects of radiation. Many people feel very tired during and after treatment
- skin – may be very sensitive or painful to touch
- appetite loss – you may lose your appetite and lose weight
- hair loss – you may lose some or all hair – on your scalp, face or body – during treatment. Usually it grows back and returns to normal after radiation therapy has finished.
May be used for cancer of the bladder, bowel, cervix, ovary, uterus, vulva, prostate, or rectum.
The radiation oncologist will try to avoid the ovaries, especially if you have not yet been through menopause. If radiation does affect the ovaries, they’ll stop producing female hormones. This can cause menopausal symptoms, and your periods may become irregular or stop. Your periods may return after treatment is over, but sometimes infertility will be permanent.
For more on this, see Fertility issues.
Pelvic radiation therapy can cause short-term inflammation of the vagina and vulva. Scar tissue from treatment can make the vagina shorter and narrower (vaginal stenosis). Sexual intercourse may be painful, but using vaginal dilators or vibrators after treatment ends can help. Using water-based lubricants and moisturisers is also useful. In some cases oestrogen-based creams are prescribed.
For more on this, see Coping with vaginal changes.
Radiation therapy may also cause bowel problems, such as diarrhoea. This is usually temporary, but it is sometimes permanent.
This can cause the skin to become red and dry and develop a sunburnt look. It usually returns to normal 4-6 weeks after treatment. Radiation therapy to the armpit may increase the chance of developing lymphoedema in the arm.
Some people develop fluid in the breast that can last up to 12 months, or in some cases, up to five years. Changes often can’t be noticed under clothing. If you’re unhappy with how the breast looks, talk to your doctor about your options (e.g. you may be able to have an operation to reduce the size of your other breast).
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.
This can damage the blood vessels and nerves that help produce erections, causing temporary or permanent erectile dysfunction. It may also make the urethra inflamed, so ejaculating might be painful for some weeks.
Reduced sperm production is common after radiation therapy, and it may be temporary or permanent. If you think you might want to father a child in the future, ask about storing sperm before starting 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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