Chemotherapy's Potential Effects on the Sexual Organs

This content has been reviewed and approved by

Jeremy R. Geffen, MD


Many patients, both men and women, find that chemotherapy affects their ability to have sex. Your age and general health will influence how the drugs will affect your sexual function. The National Cancer Institute provides the following advice for coping with sexual problems associated with cancer and chemotherapy.

Chemotherapy drugs can cause temporary or permanent infertility by reducing the number of sperm cells and their ability to move. While it does not necessarily affect a man's ability to have sexual intercourse, it could create difficulty in getting or keeping an erection. Chemotherapy can also damage the chromosomes, which could lead to birth defects.

Discuss with your doctor the use of birth control during treatment, including using a condom for the first 48 hours following the last dose of chemotherapy, as some chemotherapy agents can be detected in the sperm. Your doctor can advise you regarding how long to use birth control. If you wish to father a child, you should consult your doctor to determine whether the treatment will affect your fertility and about the possibility of storing sperm in a sperm bank before you begin your treatment.

Some men with prostate cancer undergo surgery or radiation treatments that can adversely affect their ability to have an erection. Hormone therapy treatments for prostate cancer can have the same effect, and can also greatly diminish a man's libido. Be sure to discuss these issues further with your oncologist to see what can be done to help you.
Chemotherapy and hormone therapy can adversely impact a woman's menstrual periods, fertility, libido, and menopause. Consider the following:

Effects on the ovaries - Anticancer drugs can affect the ovaries and reduce their ability to produce hormones. Some women find that their menstrual periods become irregular or stop completely during chemotherapy. Related side effects that affect the ovaries may be temporary or permanent.

Infertility - Damage to the ovaries may result in infertility that can be either temporary or permanent. Whether infertility occurs, and how long it lasts, depends on many factors, including the type of drug, the dosage given, and the woman's age.

Menopause - A woman's age and the chemotherapy drugs and dosages will determine whether she experiences menopause while on chemotherapy. Chemotherapy may also cause menopause-like symptoms, such as hot flashes and dry vaginal tissues. These tissue changes can make intercourse uncomfortable and can make a woman more prone to bladder and/or vaginal infections. Any infection should be treated immediately.

Discuss with your doctor and cancer care team the best ways to reduce symptoms, such as hot flashes and vaginal symptoms. For some women, estrogen creams applied directly on the vaginal tissues can safely and effectively reduce discomfort. Dressing in layered clothing can provide relief during hot flashes, and avoiding caffeine and alcohol can help reduce hot flashes as well. The right kind of clothing also makes a difference in reducing vaginal infections. Avoid wearing tight slacks or shorts; choose cotton underwear and pantyhose with a ventilated lining.

Care should be taken when using vaginal lubricants; a water or mineral oil-based lubricant is recommended, not petroleum jelly. Your doctor may prescribe a vaginal cream or suppository.

This content was last reviewed August 15, 2010 by Dr. Reshma L. Mahtani.
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