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Breast Cancer Drugs & Sexual Problems

Postmenopausal women who take aromatase inhibitors for treatment of breast cancer tend to have high rates of sexual problems, such as poor vaginal lubrication, painful intercourse, and diminished sexual interest, according to Swedish researchers.

Using a standardized questionnaire, the researchers analyzed the sexual function of 82 postmenopausal women who were taking either an aromatase inhibitor or another drug called tamoxifen for treatment of breast cancer.

One hundred two postmenopausal women without breast cancer were also surveyed as a comparison group.

Both aromatase inhibitors and tamoxifen work to prevent breast cancer from returning, but they work in different ways. Aromatase inhibitors block the enzyme aromatase, which is used to make estrogen. Since many forms of breast cancer depend on estrogen to grow, aromatase inhibitors make it more difficult for breast cancer cells to multiply.

Tamoxifen does not block estrogen production. Instead, it works to prevent estrogen from attaching to cancer cells.

Rates of Sexual Problems

The researchers found that among the women who took aromatase inhibitors,

  • 74% of the women experienced poor lubrication.
  • 57% had painful intercourse.
  • 50% had low sexual interest.
  • 42% were dissatisfied with their sex life.

In a press release, the North American Menopause Society explained, “These percentages were far higher than for postmenopausal women who were not being treated for breast cancer. And although women taking tamoxifen for breast cancer also had low sexual interest and more pain with intercourse, they had significantly fewer difficulties than women taking aromatase inhibitors.”

The researchers suggested that sexual problems among women who take aromatase inhibitors is “a greatly underestimated problem.” More study on aromatase inhibitors and their side effects could help improve the quality of life for women who take these drugs.

The study was published in September in Menopause, the journal of the North American Menopause Society.


HealthDay via (U.S. Department of Health and Human Services)

“Breast Cancer Drug Linked to Sexual Problems in Older Women”

(September 28, 2012)


Baumgart, Juliane, MD, PhD, et al.

“Sexual dysfunction in women on adjuvant endocrine therapy after breast cancer”

(Abstract. Published online: September 17, 2012)

National Cancer Institute

“Hormone Therapy for Breast Cancer”

(Page last reviewed: August 2, 2012)

The North American Menopause Society

“Breast Cancer Treatment Brings Sexual Difficulties for Postmenopausal Women”

(Press release. September 21, 2012)

Reuters via Chicago Tribune

Pittman, Genevra

“Sex problems common with breast cancer drugs”

(September 28, 2012)