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Cancer and Sex: What Men Need to Know

Cancer can be a challenge to sexual intimacy, but men can still maintain a healthy sex life after diagnosis. 

An estimated 1.8 million Americans will be diagnosed with cancer in 2020. Cancer diagnosis brings new challenges to the lifestyles of those diagnosed and their immediate family members. However, a cancer diagnosis does not mean the end of sexual intimacy.

More than 16.9 million cancer survivors currently live in the United States. National Cancer Survivors’ Day was initially established to bring awareness to the ways in which cancer survivors can live fulfilling lives after cancer diagnosis and treatment. The entire month of June is now dedicated to highlighting the strength and hope of all cancer survivors in the United States.

National Cancer Survivors’ Day recognizes anyone with a history of cancer, whether newly diagnosed or years into remission. Survivors are linked together for support, those currently in cancer treatment are provided with resources, and those newly diagnosed are given assistance in navigating life during treatment. A vast network of agencies participate in cancer awareness events throughout the month of June to recognize this month of celebration.

This article reviews the most common cancers affecting men in the United States, as well as how cancer impacts sexual function.

Common Cancers Affecting Men

The cancers most commonly affecting men in the United States are prostate cancer, lung cancer, colorectal cancer, and skin cancer. Prostate cancer is the most commonly diagnosed cancer in men, followed by skin cancer. The human papillomavirus (HPV) can also cause cancers of the penis, anus, and throat in men.

Some forms of cancer take years to develop and may not show early symptoms. It is important for men to follow all cancer screening guidelines according to their age and level of risk. Early diagnosis and intervention are critical to successful treatment in both men and women.

Examples of cancers affecting men include:

CancerDescriptionScreening Recommendations
Prostate CancerProstate cancer is cancer that begins in and affects the prostate, an organ of the male reproductive system. Risk for prostate cancer increases with age. African American men have a greater risk of developing prostate cancer than men of other ethnicities.Men with an average risk for prostate cancer should begin screening at age 50.

Men with an increased risk of prostate cancer should be screened earlier, at age 40 or 45, depending on the severity of risk.
Colorectal CancerColorectal cancer is cancer that begins in the colon or rectum. It is also referred to as colon cancer. This cancer typically begins as a polyp on the lining of the colon or rectum. Colorectal cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death in cancer that affects both men and women.Men should begin screening at age 45.
Lung CancerLung cancer is cancer that begins in and affects the lungs. Lung cancer is the leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Risk for lung cancer increases with smoking, chemical or industrial exposure, and in those with a family history of lung cancer.Screening for lung cancer depends on level of risk. Current or former smokers may benefit from screening beginning at age 55.
Skin CancerSkin cancer is cancer that begins anywhere on the skin. Skin cancer is one of the most commonly diagnosed cancers for both men and women in the United States. People at higher risk for skin cancer include people with fair skin, with a family history of skin cancer, or who are frequently exposed to ultraviolet (UV) rays (e.g. people who regularly use tanning beds).Any suspicious moles or spots on the skin should be reported to a medical provider immediately.

How Does Cancer Affect Sexual Health?

Couple smiling together.Cancer diagnosis and treatment can dramatically impact one’s sex life. For example, one study that surveyed cancer survivors found that 46 percent of cancer survivors reported sexual health problems related to their diagnosis and treatment. In addition to this, 71 percent of those surveyed reported that they received no treatment for sexual dysfunction.

The relationship between prostate cancer and erectile dysfunction (ED) is well established. The likelihood of developing ED after treatment for prostate cancer is dependent upon the type of treatment received. For example, an estimated 50 percent of men who undergo external beam radiation will experience ED. Oral medications are commonly prescribed to treat ED after treatment for prostate cancer.

Some men experience a decrease in sex drive, ED symptoms, pain during sex, or the inability to climax during and following cancer treatment. Men should speak to their healthcare provider about sexual dysfunction if it arises during or after treatment. Men may also benefit from speaking with a mental health provider or sex therapist to address sexual dysfunction stemming from psychological distress, changes in body image, and trauma resulting from cancer treatment.

How Men Can Reduce Cancer Risk?

Men who take care of their health can reduce their risk of cancer. Simple lifestyle changes, such as increasing physical activity and reducing alcohol consumption can go a long way when it comes to staying healthy. More challenging lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, may require help from a medical provider. Men who take care of their physical health and refrain from smoking are also less likely to experience erectile dysfunction (ED).

Tips for reducing one’s risk of cancer include:

  • Not using tobacco products. Using any type of tobacco product places people at risk for cancer. Cigarette smoking is associated with many forms of cancer and chewing tobacco is associated with oral cancers. Quitting smoking is a great first step in reducing cancer risk.
  • Limiting alcohol consumption. Drinking alcohol increases one’s risk for liver, lung, colon, breast, and kidney cancer. The heavier someone drinks, the higher their risk for cancer.
  • Staying physically active and maintaining a healthy weight. Maintaining a healthy weight can reduce risk of cancer. Physical activity is also associated with reduced risk for colon and breast cancer.
  • Eating a nutritious diet. The International Agency on Cancer Research recommends limiting processed meats and eating plenty of nutritious plant-based foods to reduce cancer risk.
  • Practicing “safe sun.” Reducing UV exposure is essential to preventing skin cancer.  When exposed to the sun, people should wear sunscreen, cover as much skin as possible, and avoid midday sun rays.
  • Getting vaccinated. Having hepatitis B increases a person’s risk for liver cancer. The hepatitis B vaccine is recommended to prevent hepatitis B infection. The HPV vaccine prevents cancers associated with the most dangerous strains of HPV. The Gardasil vaccine has been approved for males age 9 to 45.

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