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Cancer Health Center

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

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For women who have breast cancer, the safety of giving androgens is unknown. Serum androgens can be aromatized to estrogen. Data from epidemiologic studies suggest there may be an increased risk of breast cancer with higher concentrations of endogenous androgens.[68,69] However, endogenous androgens present over a life span do not equal exogenous androgen supplementation for a woman with low androgen concentrations. One small study evaluating the effects of testosterone supplementation on breast tissue found that the addition of testosterone to estrogen and progesterone inhibited the breast proliferation exhibited in the group that received estrogen, progesterone, and placebo.[70][Level of evidence: I] Furthermore, one case-controlled study in more than 8,000 women found that the use of exogenous testosterone for 4 years did not result in an increased incidence of breast cancer, despite the fact that 83% of testosterone users were also using estrogen replacement compared with only 15% of the age-matched controls.[71][Level of evidence: III] Therefore, many unanswered questions remain about sufficient androgen levels for adequate sexual function as well as short- and long-term safety. To date, there are no compelling data to support the use of testosterone alone to improve libido in women who are estrogen deficient.

Because loss of desire often is multifactorial, an approach that includes psychological assessment and treatment is usually optimal. An experienced mental health professional can rule out a mood disorder as a factor in loss of desire and can explore the interactions of factors such as the following:

  • Changes in relationship dynamics.
  • Loss of physical well-being.
  • Changes in sexual self-concept.
  • Negative body image.

The effects of prescription medications, chemical dependency, or hormonal abnormalities can be recognized and targeted for change. Unfortunately, there is no true aphrodisiac medication that can restore sexual desire in the presence of a normal hormonal environment.

In general, a variety of treatment modalities are available for sexual dysfunction after cancer. For many problems, providing information and suggestions for behavior change in a self-help format may be sufficient. Education can be provided via books,[38] pamphlets,[3,4] CD-ROMs, videos, peer counselors,[72][Level of evidence: I] or Internet interactions. For men and women with more complex and severe problems, professional intervention will be more effective. Future research needs to explore which treatment components are most effective with particular groups of patients. A psychoeducational intervention was evaluated in women with a history of breast cancer.[73][Level of evidence: I] The intervention content addressed the following:

  • Sexual anatomy.
  • Body image.
  • Attitudes and behavior.
  • Communication.
  • Ways to enhance sexual function.
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