Sex after Breast Cancer

The National Cancer Institute reports that about half of women treated for breast cancer experience some form of long-term sexual dysfunction. Increasingly, younger women are being diagnosed with breast cancer. These women are particularly vulnerable to, or distressed by, treatment-related sexual problems. The good news, however, is that they are also more likely to seek help.

Physical Changes

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and medicines can all cause sexual dysfunction. The most common reported sex-related problem is loss of desire, or low libido. A woman's ovaries shut down during cancer treatment due to lower levels of estrogen in the body. This means they also stop producing testosterone. This important hormone is associated with a woman's libido. Decreased estrogen also causes vaginal dryness, which can make sex uncomfortable or painful and can reduce a woman's ability to have an orgasm.

Emotional Changes

Emotional responses to breast cancer can also trigger loss of sexual desire. It's understandable that a woman may feel anxiety, depression or stress during and after breast cancer treatment. How she or her partner perceives her body may also change, particularly after surgery to remove a breast or after she loses her hair.

Breast cancer treatments can cause other side effects, including skin sensitivity, nausea due to certain scents, genital pain, premature menopause, fatigue and fertility problems.

Coping Post Treatment

Although there isn't a lot of research on the topic, the results of a few studies do show that the primary predictor of good sexual health after breast cancer is a woman's body image and satisfaction with sex and relationships before breast cancer.

Fortunately, women can choose from a wide variety of products to supplement waning vaginal lubrication. This simple step can go a long way toward reducing discomfort related to sexual activity. In one study of quality of life following breast cancer, 37 percent of the women responding reported using a personal lubricant to facilitate sexual comfort.

It's important to maintain open communication with your partner. Involve your partner in your treatment, and openly share your feelings, wants and needs. Remember, he or she may also be anxious about resuming sexual relations.

Seek help. Discuss your concerns with your physician or ask for a referral to someone qualified in treating sexual dysfunction following cancer. Most women are never counseled about sexual concerns during or after breast cancer treatment. Consider participating in a support group to share experiences and learn successful coping tips from other women.