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Sexual intercourse and radiotherapy

Radiotherapy to the pelvic area can make sexual intercourse uncomfortable for a while. You may notice a change in your sexual desire (libido). This is common and may only be short term.

Radiotherapy may make you feel too tired or nauseated to want to be intimate. Some people may also feel less sexually attractive to their partner because of changes to their body. Talking to your partner about your concerns may help.

  • Effects on women-radiotherapy may cause changes in the vagina. It may feel dry, itchy or burning. Treatment may also cause vaginal tissue to shrink and stiffen making sex painful. If you have these problems tell your doctor or nurse as the symptoms can usually be relieved. They may advise you to use vaginal lubricant or an instrument to expand the vagina (dilator) or to have regular intercourse. Some women stop having their periods during treatment and may experience menopause. The signs of menopause include hot flushes, dry skin and vaginal dryness.
  • Effects on men-men may have problems getting and maintaining erections or ejaculation may be painful for a few weeks after treatment.

Using contraception during treatment

Although radiotherapy can affect fertility it is still possible for a woman to become pregnant while having radiotherapy. A man receiving radiotherapy could still make his partner pregnant.

Women having radiotherapy or whose partners are having radiotherapy are usually advised not to become pregnant. In a woman radiotherapy to the pelvic area may affect either her eggs (ova) before conception or her unborn child. Radiotherapy to an area close to a man’s testicles may cause him to produce abnormal sperm.

If pregnancy is possible you and your partner will be strongly advised to use contraception or abstain from sex during radiotherapy. If you or your partner becomes pregnant talk to your doctor as soon as possible.

Using contraception after treatment

It may be recommended you use a barrier method (such as a condom or a female condom) for a certain period of time. This is to prevent the risk of infection if you have any sores that are healing.

Talk to your doctor for more information about using contraception. Your health care team can also give you advice if you are planning on starting a family after cancer treatment.

For more information about self esteem and managing
 the effects of radiotherapy on your sexuality call 13 11 20.

Fertility issues

Having radiotherapy near your reproductive organs could affect your ability to have children naturally (fertility).

  • Effects on women-radiotherapy to the pelvic area can cause periods to become irregular or stop for a short time. For some women their periods stop permanently (menopause). Talk to your doctor about ways to relieve the symptoms of menopause.
  • Effects on men-radiotherapy to an area that includes the testicles may reduce sperm production temporarily. You may feel the sensations of orgasm but ejaculate little or no semen. This is called a dry orgasm. Usually, semen production returns to normal after a few months but for some men infertility is permanent. If you want to father a child you may wish to have sperm stored before your treatment starts. This would allow your partner to conceive through artificial insemination later. Discuss this with your doctor.

Speak to your doctor about the effects on fertility before you start radiotherapy treatment.