Many Women Have Sexual Problems After Breast Cancer Treatment

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Breast cancer diagnosis and treatment may disrupt a woman's sex life a lot or a little. A study reports that more than half of the Australian women questioned said they had sex problems after breast cancer treatment.

The study was part of a large, ongoing project analyzing the long-term effect of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment on the physical, psychological, and social well-being of Australian women.

More than 1,580 women treated for breast cancer filled out a questionnaire about sex and intimacy after breast cancer treatment. Most of the women completed the questionnaire about 41 weeks after the breast cancer was diagnosed. Most of the women (1,011) were younger than 70; the other 577 women were 70 or older.

More than 80% of the women said that their sex life was good BEFORE the breast cancer diagnosis. After treatment, 59% of the women said they had some type of sex problem. Problems were most common in women younger than 70 with a regular partner -- 70% of these women reported some problems, including:

  • decrease in or loss of sexual desire
  • decrease in the amount of sex they enjoyed
  • worrying that their sex life wasn't or might not be as good as it was before treatment

Sexual problems were more common in women who also were having hot flashes and night sweats (called vasomotor symptoms). More than 80% of the women who reported sex problems also reported vasomotor symptoms. Hot flashes and night sweats can happen after menopause, but they're also associated with breast cancer treatment. Sexual problems also were more common in women who took an aromatase inhibitor. Aromatase inhibitors are one type of hormonal therapy used to treat breast cancer. An aromatase inhibitor is typically given after surgery and other treatments to lower the risk of the cancer coming back (recurrence). The aromatase inhibitors are:

  • Arimidex (chemical name: anastrozole)
  • Aromasin (chemical name: exemestane)
  • Femara (chemical name: letrozole)

It's likely that most women diagnosed with breast cancer think about how their diagnoses and treatments will affect their sexuality, which is understandable. The physical changes and emotional hurdles that go along with diagnosis and treatment can decrease quality of life, including sexuality, for some women. Still, wanting and having satisfying sex during and after breast cancer treatment can be an important part of your overall recovery. So if you've been diagnosed with breast cancer and are struggling with sexual concerns or problems, know that you aren't alone. Talk to a trusted healthcare professional about your concerns or problems. A professional can address any misconceptions you may have, help you discuss your concerns with your partner, and suggest options for getting more help if you need it.

The Sex and Intimacy section has much more information about sexuality during and after breast cancer treatment, along with links to transcripts from several Ask-the-Expert Online Conferences on the topic.

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