Women with anal cancer: What to know about sexual health

Around 5,000 people in the United States are diagnosed with anal cancer each year, which is often treated using radiation therapy. Although radiation therapy can be effective in treating the cancer, it often causes side effects, including changes to patients’ sexual health. This is especially true for women. But many anal cancer patients are unaware that radiation therapy may be the reason for these changes, or they’re too embarrassed to talk with their doctors about this. We talked with Cullen Taniguchi, M.D., Ph.D., to learn more about radiation therapy’s sexual side effects and how we’re helping patients cope. Here’s what he shared. How can radiation therapy change skin? Radiation can cause tenderness, redness, sores and scarring at the site of treatment. So when a tumor is located near the genitalia, patients may experience irritation that makes sexual activity uncomfortable or even painful. We often ask patients refrain from sexual activity until the skin starts feeling closer to normal, which is typically within 2 to 3 weeks after treatment. What challenges does scarring present? For women who receive radiation therapy as part of their anal cancer treatment, scarring at the end of the vagina is possible. This can block the cervix, making it difficult to conduct a Pap test. Also, scarring in the vagina can make penetration painful. How can sexual side effects be managed? To reduce the likelihood of external irritation at the genitalia, we can use intensity-modulated radiation therapy (IMRT). IMRT uses advanced computer software to direct multiple radiation beams of different intensities at the tumor, which allows us to treat the tumor with the highest possible dose...