- Cancer Information
- Managing side effects
- Sexuality, intimacy and cancer
- Treatment side effects
- 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 or chest
- Radiation therapy to the testicles
- Protecting your partner during chemotherapy and radiation therapy
Side effects often relate to the body part 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 effects – your skin may be very sensitive or painful to touch
- loss of appetite – you may lose your appetite and lose weight
- hair loss – you may lose some or all of the hair on your head, face or body. It usually grows back when radiation therapy has finished.
Most people feel upset at having cancer in an intimate area of their body. Visit Cancer Australia to download a copy of Intimacy and sexuality for women with gynaecological cancer – starting a conversation to help you talk with your doctors.
Often used to treat cancer of the bladder, bowel, cervix, ovary, uterus, vulva, prostate or rectum. It’s important to talk to your doctor about ways to preserve your fertility, such as egg or sperm storage, before any treatment begins.
Radiation therapy may cause bowel issues or diarrhoea. This is usually temporary, but may be permanent. You may also lose your pubic hair.
The radiation oncologist will try to avoid the ovaries, especially if you haven’t been through menopause. If radiation affects the ovaries, they stop producing hormones. This brings on menopause symptoms, and your periods become irregular or stop. Periods may return after treatment, but infertility may be permanent.
Radiation therapy to the pelvic area can cause short-term inflammation of the vulva and vagina. Scar tissue from treatment can leave the vagina shorter and narrower (vaginal stenosis). These side effects make sexual penetration painful. A vaginal dilator may be useful after treatment. Using water-based lubricants and moisturisers can help, and in some cases, oestrogen-based creams will be suggested.
Erectile dysfunction is common after radiation therapy to the pelvis. It usually starts about 6–18 months after treatment and tends to worsen over time. You may ejaculate less semen, which may be slightly discoloured. Not having erections regularly can also lead to penile shortening.
This can cause the skin in this area to become red and dry, or develop a sunburnt look. It usually returns to normal 4–6 weeks after treatment. Radiation therapy to the armpit may increase the risk of lymphoedema in the arm.
Some people develop fluid in the breast/chest (seroma) 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/chest looks, 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.Donna
Radiation therapy can damage the blood vessels and nerves needed for erections, causing temporary or permanent erectile dysfunction. It may also inflame the urethra, so ejaculating may be painful for some weeks.
Reduced sperm production is common, and may be temporary or permanent. Even if you’re not sure if you want children in the future, it’s worth talking to your doctor about storing sperm before treatment.
Protecting your partner during chemotherapy and radiation therapy
You may be advised to use some form of barrier during specific sexual activities to reduce any risk to your partner from treatment and avoid pregnancy. Your doctor will advise how long you need to use this.
Chemotherapy – The drugs may be released into your body fluids, so your doctor will usually suggest using protection. For intercourse, use condoms or female condoms.
For oral sex, use condoms, female condoms or dental dams (latex squares). Wear latex gloves if using hands for penetration. If you have anal sex, use condoms. Ask your doctor or nurse how long you need to use protection.
Internal radiation – Your doctor will usually advise you to avoid sexual contact or use barrier contraception (such as condoms) during treatment.
Download a PDF booklet on this topic.
Dr Margaret McGrath, Head of Discipline: Occupational Therapy, Sydney School of Health Sciences, The University of Sydney, NSW; Yvette Adams, Consumer; Dr Kimberley Allison, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Andreea Ardeleanu, Mental Health Accredited Social Worker, Cancer Counselling Service, Canberra Health Service, ACT; Kate Barber, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Victoria; Dr Kerrie Clover, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Psycho-Oncology Service, Calvary Mater Newcastle, NSW; Maree Grier, Senior Clinical Psychologist, Royal Brisbane and Women’s Hospital, QLD; Mark Jenkin, Consumer; Bronwyn Jennings, Gynaecology Oncology Clinical Nurse Consultant, Mater Health, QLD; Dr Rosalie Power, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Dr Margaret Redelman OAM, Medical Practitioner and Clinical Psychosexual Therapist, Sydney, NSW; Kerry Santoro, Prostate Cancer Specialist Nurse Consultant, Southern Adelaide Local Health Network, SA; Simone Sheridan, Sexual Health Nurse Consultant, Sexual Health Services – Austin Health, Royal Talbot Rehabilitation Centre, VIC; Prof Jane Ussher, Chair, Women’s Heath Psychology and Chief Investigator, Out with Cancer study, Western Sydney University, NSW; Paula Watt, Clinical Psychologist, WOMEN Centre, WA.
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