Sex and Women with Cancer -- Overview

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Chemotherapy (chemo) and sex

Chemotherapy (called chemo) is often given through an IV, which puts the drugs into a vein and right into the blood. This is a common treatment for many types of cancer.

But newer methods sometimes can be used to get the treatment right to the tumor. For instance, with bladder cancer, the chemo can be put right into the bladder through a small soft tube. Treatments like this usually only affect a woman’s sex life for a short time. Some women may notice pain if they have sex too soon after the treatment.

Women with tumors in the pelvis may get chemo sent just to the cancer. The drugs are put into the blood vessels that feed the tumor, so an extra-strong dose goes right to the cancer. This kind of treatment is new, and doctors don’t know the long-term effects on a woman’s sex life. The short-term side effects are much like those of IV chemo.

In another way of giving chemo, the drugs are put only into the belly (abdomen). For cancers of the ovaries or colon, the space around the intestines is filled with liquid chemo drugs. The liquid is drained out after a short time.

Early menopause with chemo

Many women getting chemo go into early menopause. They may notice hot flashes, the vagina may be dry and tight during sex, and their periods will go off their usual schedule. As the lining of the vagina thins, they might bleed slightly after sex.

Pregnancy during and after chemo

If you want kids later

If you think you might want to have children in the future, it’s very important to talk to your doctor about this before you start chemo. Ask if the treatment will affect whether you can have children. Many chemo drugs can damage the ovaries. For more on fertility and cancer, call us or visit our website.

Don’t get pregnant during (or just after) chemo

Many of the drugs used to treat cancer can harm a growing baby. During chemo women should use birth control to keep from getting pregnant. Talk to your doctor about what kind of birth control is best for you. If you want to get pregnant soon, talk with your doctor about how long you should wait after chemo ends.

Birth control after chemo

If you haven’t gone through menopause, it’s hard to know if you’ll be able to get pregnant after chemo. Some women have monthly periods after chemo and still can’t get pregnant. Others can, so use birth control unless you want a child.

Chemo and sexual desire

Women getting chemo often notice less desire for sex. Side effects like upset stomach, tiredness, and weakness may leave little energy for your partner. After chemo ends, the side effects will slowly fade, and as you start to feel better, the desire for sex should return.

Women getting chemo often feel less attractive. Hair loss, weight loss or gain, and sometimes IVs that stay in for weeks or months can make it hard to feel like yourself. Ideas to help with this are in the section called “Dealing with sexual problems.”

Other problems from chemo that may affect your sex life

Some chemo drugs can make your mouth, throat, intestines, and vagina dry and sore.

Yeast infections are common during chemo. If you have a yeast infection, you may itch in or near your vagina. Some women have a thick white discharge, with burning during and after sex.

Chemo can also cause a flare up of genital herpes or genital warts if a woman has had them before. If you have any signs of infection, see your doctor right away. Infections can be serious because chemo can weaken your immune system. This makes it harder for you to fight infections.

You might be able to avoid some infections by wearing loose clothes and cotton panties to keep the vagina less moist. Wipe front to back after passing urine. Do not douche. Your doctor may also prescribe a vaginal cream or suppository to reduce germs that may grow in the vagina. Don’t touch the vagina or urethra with anything that has touched near the anus. Germs from the bowel can cause infections if they get into the vagina or urethra.

You’ll also want to avoid new infections you can get from sex partners. If you are having sex with someone you’re not sure about, practice safer sex. The safest way to have sex with a man is to use condoms every time, from start to finish. Whether you have oral sex (using the mouth), anal sex (entering the rectum), or vaginal sex, condoms can lower your risk of sexual infections. Also keep in mind that the rectum is fragile, and might tear or rip. There may be times during your treatment it will not be safe to have anal sex.

For more about safer sex, contact the American Sexual Health Association (see the “To learn more” section).


Last Medical Review: 05/09/2013
Last Revised: 05/09/2013