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Women's sex life and fertility after radiotherapy

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This page tells you about the effects of radiotherapy on a woman's fertility and sex life. There is information about

 

Radiotherapy and your fertility

Radiotherapy to the lower part of the abdomen in premenopausal women usually causes the menopause. So the ovaries stop producing eggs and the female sex hormones. Radiotherapy also affects the womb, so that it is not possible to have children afterwards. 

It is occasionally possible to move the ovaries out of the treatment area by surgery before radiotherapy begins. Or some ovarian tissue can be removed and frozen. The eggs can then be used for fertility treatment and surrogate pregnancy afterwards, but this is very rare.

Menopausal effects

After radiotherapy to the pelvis (lower abdomen), over a few weeks you will have the signs of the menopause

  • Hot flushes and sweats
  • Dry skin
  • Dryness in the vagina
  • Loss of energy
  • Irregular or no periods
  • Less interest in sex
  • Moodiness or feeling low

Before you have radiotherapy, your radiotherapy doctor (clinical oncologist) will discuss the possibility of infertility with you. You'll usually be asked to sign a form saying that you agree (consent) to have the treatment and that you understand the side effects.

Hormone replacement therapy (HRT)

Your doctor may prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) to help overcome the symptoms of the menopause. There is information about coping with hormone symptoms in the coping with cancer section. And the Women's Health Concern organisation produces a leaflet called The Menopause which has tips on coping with the changes it causes.

Emotions and menopause

Going into an early menopause can be very upsetting. It may help to talk over your fears and worries with your partner or a friend. Try to talk to the radiotherapy staff too if you are having problems. The Cancer Research UK nurses or some of the women's organisations on our general organisations list can give information and advice about how to cope with an early menopause.

 

Radiotherapy and your sex life

Radiotherapy to the lower abdomen or pelvis can make the tissues in the vagina stiffer and less stretchy over time. This is called fibrosis. It can make the vagina narrower and shorter and can affect your sex life. You may also have vaginal dryness and pain on intercourse. There are ways of reducing both of these effects.

Vaginal narrowing

To prevent or minimise shortening and narrowing of the vagina, it is important to start using vaginal dilators after the radiotherapy treatment. Your doctor, nurse or radiographer will explain how to use them. If you don't use these, it can become difficult to have sex comfortably after your treatment.

Dilators are tube shaped objects, made of plastic or metal. They come in different sizes. You usually start using them from anything between 2 to 8 weeks after your radiotherapy ends. This varies depending on your radiotherapy centre.

You put the dilator into your vagina gently for about 5 to 10 minutes about 3 times a week. It stretches the vagina and helps to stop it from narrowing. It is important not to force this. If you find it difficult to get the dilator in, you should switch to a smaller size. You may find it easier with a water soluble lubricant such as Astroglide or to use a moisturiser such as Replens. You can use the dilator in the bath if you prefer.

If you find that the dilator you have been using is getting a tighter fit, you may need to use it more often. Talk to your doctor or nurse first. You may find that you have slight bleeding or spotting after using your dilator. This is normal. It isn't normal to have heavy bleeding or pain. If you have either of these effects, stop and contact your doctor or nurse. You may need to carry on using the dilators for life. But if you are having sex at least twice a week, you don't need to continue to use the dilators.

Vaginal dryness and pain

After radiotherapy to the lower abdomen, some women have vaginal dryness and pain during intercourse. Ask your doctor or specialist nurse for advice if you have this problem. You may be able to have hormone cream or hormone replacement therapy (HRT), which can both help.

More about radiotherapy effects on your sex life

There is detailed information about the effects of radiotherapy on your sex life in the section about sex and cancer for women. This includes information about using vaginal dilators and about products for lubricating the vagina.

 

More information about radiotherapy

We have detailed information about external radiotherapy and internal radiotherapy in this section.

There is also detailed information about the side effects of radiotherapy.

You can phone the Cancer Research UK nurses on freephone 0808 800 4040. The lines are open from 9am to 5pm, Monday to Friday. They will be happy to answer any questions that you have.

Our general organisations page gives details of people who can provide information about radiotherapy. Some organisations can put you in touch with a cancer support group. Our cancer and treatments reading list has information about books, leaflets and other resources about radiotherapy treatment.

If you want to find people to share experiences with online, you could use Cancer Chat, our online forum.

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Updated: 2 May 2014