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Cancer Health Center

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Sexuality and Reproductive Issues (PDQ®): Supportive care - Health Professional Information [NCI] - The Prevalence and Types of Sexual Dysfunction in People With Cancer


Women may experience the following:

  • Changes in genital sensations due to pain or a loss of sensation and numbness.
  • Decreased ability to reach orgasm.

Loss of sensation can be as distressing as painful sensation for some individuals.[14] In women, premature ovarian failure as a result of chemotherapy or pelvic radiation therapy is a frequent antecedent to sexual dysfunction, particularly when hormone replacement is contraindicated because the malignancy is hormonally sensitive.[2]

Unlike many other physiological side effects of cancer treatment, sexual problems do not tend to resolve within the first year or two of disease-free survival;[2,7,15,16,17,18,19] rather, they may remain constant and fairly severe or even continue to increase. Although it is unclear how much sexual problems influence a survivor's rating of overall health-related quality of life, these problems are clearly bothersome to many patients and interfere with a return to normal posttreatment life. Assessment, referral, intervention, and follow-up are important for maximizing quality of life and survival.[2,17]

In this summary, unless otherwise stated, evidence and practice issues as they relate to adults are discussed. The evidence and application to practice related to children may differ significantly from information related to adults. When specific information about the care of children is available, it is summarized under its own heading.

In a qualitative study of 48 men (130 approached) with erectile dysfunction after treatment for early prostate cancer,[20] quality of life was significantly affected in areas such as the following:

  • The quality of sexual intimacy.
  • Everyday interactions with women.
  • Sexual fantasy life.
  • Perceptions of their masculinity.

Patients who participated in a randomized trial that compared radical prostatectomy with watchful waiting were asked to complete a questionnaire regarding symptoms, psychological functioning, and quality of life.[21] Although the frequency of sexual thoughts was similar in both groups, the prevalence of erectile dysfunction (changes in voluntary erection in sexual situations, erection on awakening, and spontaneous erections) was higher in the radical prostatectomy group (80%) than in the watchful-waiting group (45%). Among men who underwent radical prostatectomy, 56% were moderately or greatly distressed by the decline in sexual function, as compared with 40% of men in the watchful-waiting group.[21]

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