Ovarian cancer is a type of cancer that begins in the ovaries. The cancer and its treatment can cause symptoms that interfere with a person’s sex life.

Treatments for the cancer can result in direct symptoms, such as vaginal dryness and pain during sex, and more systemic side effects, such as fatigue and nausea.

This article explores how ovarian cancer and its treatment can affect sex. It also provides tips on how to cope with these side effects.

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A 2020 article in the International Journal of Gynecological Cancer (IJGC) examined multiple studies on people with ovarian cancer.

The article found that of the people who participated, up to 75% reported significant changes in their sex lives since diagnosis.

It found that the most common problems included:

Many of these changes can occur as a result of treatment.

Additionally, the article noted that these changes could affect a person’s intimate relationships. It may be difficult for partnerships to navigate physical and mental changes, and in some people, this can reduce partner intimacy.

However, some people reported that their intimate relationships had either remained similar or improved since diagnosis.

People with an ovarian cancer diagnosis are also more likely to suffer from anxiety and depression, which can impact their sex life.

The American Cancer Society (ACS) notes that some side effects of chemotherapy can affect sex. These include:

The hair loss associated with chemotherapy may also impact a person’s perceived body image. This could affect their attitude to and desire for sexual activity.

According to the ACS, chemotherapy may cause symptoms of menopause in those who have not already experienced it. Some of these symptoms, such as vaginal dryness and low mood, can impact a person’s sex life.

How much surgery affects a person’s sex life can vary, depending on the specific surgical procedures.

Some people with ovarian cancer may need a hysterectomy, a surgical procedure that removes the uterus, or an oophorectomy, which is the removal of one or both ovaries.

According to the ACS, removing the uterus or both ovaries can trigger early menopause in people who have not already experienced it.

Additionally, the IJGC article found that the visual effects of surgery, such as scarring and stomas, can negatively impact a person’s body image. This may affect a person’s attitude to and desire for sex.

A person may have to temporarily refrain from having sex while recovering from surgery. The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists recommends that a person avoid having sex or inserting anything into their vagina for the first 6 weeks after a hysterectomy.

However, recovery times may vary depending on the surgical procedure and a person’s overall health before surgery.

This type of therapy blocks cancer cells’ hormone receptors to prevent their growth. Doctors sometimes use it for certain types of ovarian tumors.

Although medications can differ, all treatments that affect a person’s hormones may cause side effects that interfere with a person’s sex life. According to the ACS, some side effects of hormone therapy for cancer include:

  • vaginal dryness
  • changes to the menstrual cycle
  • joint or muscle pain
  • hot flushes

According to the National Cancer Institute (NCI), some side effects of radiation therapy for ovarian cancer can affect a person’s sex life. These include:

  • vaginal dryness
  • pain, itching, and inflammation in the vagina
  • pain or discomfort during sex
  • vaginal atrophy, or thinning of the vaginal walls

Targeted therapies involve medications that help destroy cancer cells while doing limited damage to surrounding cells. A doctor may recommend one of several different medications for treating ovarian cancer.

The ACS states that potential side effects of targeted therapies include:

  • mouth sores
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • issues with the digestive tract, including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea
  • joint or muscle pain

These side effects may decrease a person’s desire to engage in sexual activity.

A person should speak with a doctor if they experience side effects that negatively affect them as they may respond better to a different medication.

According to the ACS, the side effects of chemotherapy can go away fairly quickly, but some may take months or years to disappear completely. If chemotherapy has caused long-term damage to the reproductive organs, the side effects may be permanent.

The ACS notes that most side effects of radiation therapy disappear within a few months of ending treatment, although it can take longer.

Surgery that affects the reproductive system, such as the ovaries or uterus, can cause permanent changes to a person’s sex life. It may cause infertility, scarring, or trigger early menopause, which can interfere with sex.

According to Cancer Research UK, hormone replacement therapy (HRT) can help to relieve the symptoms of menopause if they disrupt a person’s sex life.

If a person experiences side effects related to their sexual health, or the side effects are not going away after treatment ends, they should speak with a doctor. The doctor may be able to provide treatment to help them regain sexual satisfaction.

It can be difficult to predict exactly how long a person who has survived ovarian cancer will notice an impact on their sex life. Some side effects can still affect a person’s sex life after the end of treatment.

It is possible to regain sexual activity after treatment for ovarian cancer. A 2016 study found that some factors may play a role in regaining sexual activity. It stated that people with ovarian cancer were more likely to be sexually active after treatment if they were married and younger than 56 years of age.

It also found that those with a positive self-image were more likely to be sexually active after treatment and achieve higher levels of sexual satisfaction.

Another factor was the length of time since the original diagnosis. A longer time since the original diagnosis meant a person was more likely to resume sexual activity.

The emotional impact of undergoing cancer treatment can affect a person’s body image and mental health, even after treatment has ended.

Everyone is different, so it could take some people longer than others to regain their previous sexual satisfaction.

A person can often take steps to manage their sex life during ovarian cancer treatment. By following the advice below, a person can try to improve their sexual satisfaction.

Vaginal dryness

For vaginal dryness, the ACS recommends a person should try using:

  • lubricants
  • vaginal estrogen
  • vaginal moisturizers

Find out more about vaginal lubrication here.

Pain during sex

Some tips to help with painful sex include:

  • trying positions that allow for control over penetration
  • using lubricants
  • communicating with a partner about what does and does not feel good

A special therapist may be able to help with pelvic physical therapy or pelvic rehabilitation. This therapy can help a person relax their vaginal muscles and reduce pain during sex. A person should speak with a doctor about seeing a physical therapist.

If the treatments for ovarian cancer have affected a person’s vagina, the NCI recommends they try pelvic floor exercises. This may help to increase blood flow to the area and strengthen the pelvic muscles, making sex more comfortable.

If radiation therapy has affected a person’s vagina, the NCI also recommends using a dilator to help prevent or reverse scarring.

Psychological changes

Receiving a diagnosis of ovarian cancer and undergoing treatment can affect a person’s mental health, body image, and partner intimacy.

The NCI recommends counseling for those who are struggling with sexual health issues. Sharing concerns with others in a support group or with a therapist may benefit a person’s sex life and overall health.

The ACS provides tips on coping with physical changes that may happen during and after cancer treatment. They involve disguising the changes the treatments have made and focusing on a person’s positive features. By following these tips, a person can learn to accept their physical changes and feel comfortable in their body.

A partner of someone going through ovarian cancer and treatment can also help a person feel more comfortable and provide support.

Some tips on how a person can support their partner include:

  • supporting open communication about sex
  • looking for other ways to be intimate, including massages, showers, and other activities that allow for close contact
  • trying different positions that may be more comfortable
  • avoiding pressuring them to engage in sexual activity

The following are the answers to some common questions about ovarian cancer and sex.

How will ovarian cancer affect the reproductive system?

Ovarian cancer occurs in the ovaries, which means all cases affect the reproductive system. A person has a high risk of becoming infertile, particularly if doctors use surgery or radiation to remove or destroy the cancer.

A person should talk with a doctor about their fertility concerns and not assume that the doctor will raise the issue.

Does sex cause ovarian cancer?

There is no credible evidence that suggests sex will cause ovarian cancer. However, ovarian cancer and its treatment can cause changes, often negative, in sex drive and satisfaction.

Ovarian cancer and its treatment can negatively impact a person’s sexual health. This may include direct side effects such as vaginal dryness and pain during sex and other, more systemic symptoms, such as fatigue, nausea, and pain.

However, a person with ovarian cancer can have a fulfilling sex life. Medication, exercises, or therapy and counseling can relieve some side effects of treatment.

Open communication with a person’s partner or partners can improve intimacy and sex life.

A person should speak with a doctor about their concerns regarding ovarian cancer and sex. The doctor may be able to help reduce the impact of treatment on a person’s sex life and work with them to improve their sexual health during and after treatment.