Sex and Women with Cancer: Overview

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Surgery and sex

Radiation and sex

Radiation treatment to the pelvic area can cause changes in the sex organs. If the ovaries get a lot of radiation, they may stop working. Sometimes this is just for a short time, but it can be forever. If you have gone through menopause, you may not notice a change in your sex life. If you haven’t, radiation might cause menopause.

All women younger than 50 should talk with their doctors about birth control while getting radiation. It’s not safe to get pregnant while you are getting radiation treatment.

Fertility (being able to have children)

Young women who get smaller doses of pelvic radiation might start to have periods again as their ovaries heal. They might be able to get pregnant after treatment. With larger doses of radiation, like those used for cervical cancer, the damage doesn’t go away. Many women who get radiation to the pelvis can’t have children. If you think you might want to have children later, talk to your doctor before you start radiation.

Radiation effects on the vagina

During radiation, the skin in the treated area might get pink, swollen, and look sunburned. Your vagina could feel tender during radiation and for a few weeks after. As it heals, scars may form, causing the walls of the vagina to be thick and tough. Radiation scars can also make the vagina short or narrow. It may not stretch as much during sex.

You can often keep tight scar tissue from forming by stretching the walls of your vagina. You can do this by having sex at least 3 or 4 times a week or using a special rod-shaped device to stretch the vagina. It’s called a vaginal dilator. It’s usually plastic or rubber, and feels like putting in a large tampon for a few minutes. Even if you don’t want to keep having sex, keeping your vagina a normal size helps during pelvic exams. These doctor visits and exams are important after cancer treatment.

Radiation damage to the vagina can also make its lining thin and easy to tear. Many women notice a little bleeding after sex, even though they felt no pain. A few women get open sores in their vaginas. These could take months to heal after radiation treatment ends.

Sex during radiation therapy

As long as you aren’t bleeding a lot from a tumor in your bladder, rectum, uterus, cervix, or vagina, you may be able to have sex during pelvic radiation therapy. Unless sex or touching is painful, you should still be able to reach orgasm.

Radiation from a machine outside the body does not leave any radiation in your body. This means you won’t expose your partner to radiation during sex.

Some women are treated with a radiation implant. This is a radiation source that’s put inside the bladder, uterus, or vagina for a few days. A women’s partner can be exposed to radiation while the implant is in place, so they might need to hold off having sex. After the implant is removed, there’s no more radiation.

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