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Sex After Cancer

The Effects of Chemo/Radiation/Surgery on the Body

WHAT WILL THE CHEMO/RADIATION/SURGERY DO TO PARTS OF MY BODY THAT HAVE NOTHING TO DO WITH THE CANCER?

Radiation doses are more targeted and specific than ever, but that doesn't mean the cancer or tumor will be the only areas affected. "Patients should ask, for instance, 'What will the beam touch besides my prostate [or rectum]?" suggests Gregory Broderick, M.D., a urologic surgeon and professor of urology at Mayo Clinic in Jacksonville, FL, or: "If my bladder is in the field, what about incontinence?" Two other medically related questions may arise: "Will I have less pelvic sensation?" and, "Will my vagina be scarred or at risk for atrophy?"

If the radiation could affect the testicles or ovaries, patients may want to think about saving (banking) sperm, eggs, or ovarian tissue. Truth is, many or most survivors haven't thought about the actual radiation "fields" that are delivered during the gritty part of radiation therapy.

These same questions apply to surgery and chemotherapy. Surgeons often move things around inside the body to get at or remove the cancer. "Collateral damage" is common. "Will I have a normal, receptive vagina? A 'foreshortened' vagina? No vagina at all?" Chemotherapy, while playing havoc with hormones, has the capacity to bring on early menopause or andropause (in men), temporarily or permanently.

Then too, head and neck cancer, which is diagnosed in roughly 40,000 Americans each year, affects body image, which in turn affects libido. Many patients, says Sharon Bober, Ph.D., director of the sexual health program at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston, find that a common side effect of treatment, a lack of saliva, "makes it hard to kiss somebody. Sounds simple, but this can be a huge impact."

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