Sexual Dysfunction, ASCO's curriculum

This section has been reviewed and approved by the PLWC Editorial Board, 05/05

Sexual dysfunction affects up to 43% of women and 31% of men. It may be even more common in people with cancer because of cancer treatment, the tumor itself, or stress. The causes of sexual problems experienced by people with cancer often include the following:


  • Body changes from cancer surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation therapy
  • Hormone changes
  • Fatigue 
  • Pain 
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Medications that can reduce libido (sex drive)
  • Fear of recurrence (return of the cancer)
  • Stress
  • Depression 
  • Anxiety

Sexual problems experienced by people with cancer generally fall into one of four categories:

  • Desire disorders, which is the decrease or loss of sexual fantasies and desire
  • Arousal disorders, which include the inability to achieve or maintain sexual arousal, such as lubrication or swelling in women and an erection in men
  • Orgasmic disorders, which is the delay or absence of orgasm following normal arousal, such as premature ejaculation in men
  • Pain disorders, which is genital pain during sexual intercourse


It is important to have an honest discussion about sexual problems with your doctor. Often, there are solutions to these common sexual problems. Your doctor may ask about the following:

  • Your sexual activity before cancer
  • How cancer has changed your sexual activity
  • Any existing or potential problems in your relationship

Your doctor can help explain typical reactions to a given cancer treatment and, in some cases, refer you to a health-care professional who specializes in treating sexual dysfunction.

Managing sexual side effects

For women who experience vaginal pain or dryness, the following suggestions may help:

  • Hormone replacement therapy (only for cancers that will not be affected by hormone treatments)
  • Vaginal moisturizers or lubricants
  • Vaginal dilators, which help gradually expand the vagina
  • Anesthetic gels (to help with pain)

For men with erection problems, the following may help to increase sexual desire and potency:

  • Medications to help men achieve and maintain an erection, such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra)
  • Penile implants
  • Medications to increases blood flow to the penis, such as intraurethral alprostadil (Caverject, Edex, or Muse) and intracavernous papaverine (sold under multiple brand names)

Talk with your doctor about the potential risks and side effects before using any medication.

More Information

PLWC: Body Image Sexuality

PLWC: Managing Side Effects Sexual Dysfunction

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