Cancer patients face an overwhelming amount of obstacles. There is one area, in particular, however, that can often be overlooked and uncomfortable to address: Sex drive and physical intimacy.
“It is estimated that more than 80% of cancer survivors report a reduction in their level of desire related to their diagnosis,” says Dr. Lisa Larkin, a Cincinnati-based board-certified internist who specializes in women’s health.
While a cancer diagnosis can impact sexual desire in both men and women, Dr. Larkin believes the prevalence overall is higher in women. “Certain cancer diagnoses [like ovarian cancer, breast cancer, or advanced cervical cancer] impact desire more than others, but the overall prevalence is higher [in women],” she says.
So what’s behind the connection between cancer and low sex drive?
Dr. Larkin points to a specific area of the body. “The brain is the most important organ of desire, and a cancer diagnosis can have a profound impact on a woman’s emotional state.”
Elevated emotions can precipitate anxiety, depression, and/or relationship challenges. Women with cancer can experience sadness, loss, and fear, all of which can affect her overall well being, but also her libido.
In addition, Dr. Larkin, who is a breast cancer survivor herself, notes that cancer treatments — including, surgery, chemotherapy, and radiation—can cause a number of side effects that may have a negative impact on a woman’s sexual health.
Nausea, fatigue, mucositis, burns, scarring are some examples she provides. She also says that for younger women, chemotherapy-induced menopause and the associated hormonal changes can often result in the development of dyspareunia (painful intercourse) and/or genitourinary syndrome of menopause (GSM) along with a “significant and bothersome reduction in desire.”
According to the Journal of Menopausal Medicine, GSM is a term that describes a variety of menopausal symptoms that can be associated with physical changes. The GSM includes “not only genital symptoms (dryness, burning, and irritation) and sexual symptoms (lack of lubrication, discomfort or pain, and impaired function), but also urinary symptoms (urgency, dysuria, and recurrent urinary tract infections).”
Beyond the physical side effects, female cancer patients are often faced with body image changes due to cancer treatments, too. Experiencing things like hair loss, removal of breasts, and surgical scars can be devastating to a woman’s self-confidence and can make her feel less attractive to her partner.
“Cancer can impact ALL domains of sexual functioning,” Dr. Larkin says. “Which domain(s) are impacted depends on the patient, the type of cancer, the treatment, and her relationship.”
Beyond self-esteem issues or painful intercourse, another sexual health hurdle that female cancer patients may face, according to Dr. Larkin, is the development of Hypoactive Sexual Desire Disorder (HSDD). HSDD is a medical condition in which a woman experiences a noticeable drop in her libido— meaning she’s no longer interested in sex and it’s very frustrating and stressful for her.
“Unfortunately supplements are perceived by women— and men— incorrectly to be a safer alternative to FDA-approved medications, and this is absolutely not true.” —Dr. Lisa Larkin
The good news is HSDD is treatable, and Dr. Larkin wants to urge cancer patients that they can and should speak up about their sexual health to their healthcare provider in order to get a diagnosis.“They need to be empowered to raise concerns and symptoms with their provider and seek treatments,” she insists. “Help is available.”
Dr. Larkin also wants to warn cancer patients that at-home remedies for any kind of sexual dysfunction should be used with great caution.
“Unfortunately supplements are perceived by women— and men— incorrectly to be a safer alternative to FDA-approved medications, and this is absolutely not true,” she says. “Dietary supplements can be marketed without any data to back up their claims. Supplements may contain no active ingredient or too much active ingredient, and may contain contaminants that ingredients that are potentially dangerous.”
Cancer patients do not have to accept that the quality of their sex life is damaged for good. There are resources available.
One place we encourage women to start is the sexual desire quiz on our main page, Right To Desire. By answering six simple questions, they can get a better understanding of their current level of sexual desire.
About The Doctor:
Dr. Lisa Larkin is a Cincinnati-based, board-certified internist who has been practicing medicine since 1991 when she completed her Internal Medicine residency at The University of Chicago (she earned her AOA degree from Yale University School of Medicine). Dr. Larkin is passionate about women’s health and a breast cancer survivor herself. She is the owner and President of Lisa Larkin, MD, and Associates, an independent practice offering direct and concierge primary care. She is also the founder and CEO of Ms. Medicine, a concierge primary care practice for women.