Sex and Women with Cancer -- Overview

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How a woman’s body works

A woman’s sex organs

During the years when a woman can have children, her ovaries make hormones. They also take turns each month releasing a ripe egg. The egg travels through a Fallopian tube (see drawing) into the womb (uterus). When she has sex, a woman gets pregnant if a sperm cell gets in through the opening at the bottom of her uterus (called the cervix) and joins this egg.

If a woman doesn’t get pregnant, the lining of the uterus that has built up over the past weeks flows out of her cervix during her “period” (menstruation). If she gets pregnant, the lining stays in place to help feed the growing baby.

Hormones

The ovaries usually stop releasing eggs and stop their hormone output when a woman is around age 50. This is called menopause or the change of life. Many women are afraid they won’t want sex after menopause. But for many women the drop in hormones doesn’t change their desire for sex. The main hormones of menopause are estrogen (es-truh-jen) and androgens (an-druh-jens).

Estrogen

Estrogen helps keep your vagina moist and supple. It also helps it get longer and wider when you are aroused. The cells lining the vagina “sweat” drops of fluid that make the vagina wet.

After menopause, a woman’s estrogen levels drop. So, as the woman gets aroused, it can take longer for the vagina to change shape and make fluids. Low estrogen can also cause the lining of the vagina to get thinner and lose some of its stretch. In some women, the vagina may stay tight and dry, even if the woman is very aroused.

Androgens

The ovaries also make small amounts of androgens, which are sometimes called male hormones. Androgens help produce sexual desire in women. After menopause, women have less of these hormones, too, and some women notice a drop in desire.

Female orgasm

As a woman becomes sexually aroused, her nervous system sends signals of pleasure to her brain. If she’s touched in a way that she likes, the signals can get stronger and may trigger the orgasm reflex. During orgasm, the muscles around the genitals contract in rhythm. The sudden release of muscle tension sends waves of pleasure through the genital area and sometimes over the entire body.

A woman’s orgasms may change over time. As she gets older, orgasms may take longer to reach, and more stroking may be needed.


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