The Prevalence and Types of Sexual Dysfunction in People With Cancer

Many types of cancer and cancer therapies are frequently associated with sexual dysfunction. Learn what issues may result from different types of cancer and their treatments.

Sexuality is a complex, multidimensional phenomenon that incorporates biologic, psychologic, interpersonal, and behavioral dimensions. It is important to recognize that a wide range of normal sexual functioning exists. Ultimately, sexuality is defined by each patient and his/her partner within a context of factors such as gender, age, personal attitudes, and religious and cultural values.

Many types of cancer and cancer therapies are frequently associated with sexual dysfunction. Across sites, estimates of sexual dysfunction after various cancer treatments have ranged from 40% to 100% posttreatment. Research suggests that about 50% of women who have had breast cancer experience long-term sexual dysfunction, as do a similar proportion of women who have had gynecologic cancer. For men with prostate cancer, erectile dysfunction (erections inadequate for intercourse) has been the primary form of sexual dysfunction investigated. Prevalence rates of erectile dysfunction have varied. In general, those studies that have used patients’ self-reports have found higher rates of erectile dysfunction ranging from 60% to 90% after radical prostatectomy and between 67% and 85% following external-beam radiation therapy. Erectile dysfunction appears to be least prevalent with brachytherapy and most prevalent when cryotherapy is used to treat localized prostate cancer. For Hodgkin’s lymphoma and testicular cancer, 25% of people who have had these cancers are left with long-term sexual problems. Several articles summarize the literature on sexuality and cancer, with a particular emphasis on cancer sites that have a direct impact on sexual functioning.

An individual’s sexual response can be affected in a number of ways, and the causes of sexual dysfunction are often both physiological and psychological. The most common sexual problems for people with cancer are loss of desire for sexual activity in men and women, erectile dysfunction in men, and dyspareunia (pain with intercourse) in women. Men may also experience anejaculation (absence of ejaculation), retrograde ejaculation (ejaculation going backward to the bladder), or the inability to reach orgasm. Women may experience changes in genital sensations due to pain or a loss of sensation and numbness, as well as a decreased ability to reach orgasm. Loss of sensation can be as distressing as painful sensation for some individuals. In women, premature ovarian failure as a result of chemotherapy or pelvic radiation therapy is a frequent antecedent to sexual dysfunction, particularly when hormone replacement is contraindicated because the malignancy is hormonally sensitive. Most often, orgasm remains intact for men and women, though it may be delayed secondary to medications and/or anxiety.

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