Managing Treatments

Erectile Dysfunction and Cancer Treatment: What to Expect

Cancer treatment can lead to erectile dysfunction, causing changes in your relationship. Finding the right treatment can help you get back in the swing of things.

Many cancer treatments can affect a man’s ability to get an erection. Sometimes the effects are temporary, and other times they persist. But you have many options to overcome the challenges.

Erectile Dysfunction and Cancer Treatment

Cancer treatment affects your sex life by making it more difficult to get or keep an erection and by causing erections to be less firm than they were before treatment. The effects vary based on your treatments.


Surgery for prostate, colon and rectal cancers can cause erectile dysfunction (ED) by removing or damaging the nerves responsible for an erection. Doctors often use nerve-sparing techniques whenever possible, but damage can still occur and your body needs time to heal.

The good news is the struggles aren’t always permanent. With treatment, you can begin to recover soon, but the American Cancer Society cautions that it can take up to two years to fully heal.


Pelvic radiation, meaning therapy to the prostate, bladder, colon and/or rectum, can also damage the arteries that deliver blood to the penis and to the nerves responsible for an erection. The effects of radiation may be slower to appear than with surgery, sometimes not changing your erections until years after treatment.

Chemotherapy and Hormone Therapy

These treatments don’t often affect your ability to have an erection, but they can drastically reduce your sex drive. Your desire will likely return to normal after treatment as your testosterone and other hormone levels regain their balance.

Treatment for ED

Your doctor can offer you treatments to help overcome ED, but as you recover from cancer, you and your partner may need to find different ways to be intimate and promote sexual arousal. Here are the most common treatment options for dealing with erectile dysfunction and cancer.

  • Medication. The first choice is often to prescribe medications used to treat ED. Don’t be discouraged if they don’t kick in right away; as time passes and you heal, they’re more likely to work.
  • Erectile (or penile) rehabilitation. Trying to promote an erection within a few weeks after surgery may help you recover sexual function, according to the American Cancer Society. The idea is that increasing the blood flow to the penis keeps the tissue healthy. You don’t need to have sex during this rehabilitation period. Your goal is to try to get an erection a couple times a week, often using medication.Sometimes a low-dose pill may be used to increase blood flow to the nerves responsible for an erection.
  • Injections. It sounds scary, but penile injections are the most reliable ED treatment, says the American Cancer Society, as 80 to 90 percent of men who try them see results. You use a thin needle to inject a medication that causes erections into your penis just before sex.
  • Vacuum erection devices. Your doctor may recommend a pump if you have tried other treatment options and they haven’t worked.
  • Penile implants. Additionally, you may consider an implant if you have exhausted other remedies. This is a possibility to discuss in detail as a couple and with your doctor to ensure it’s the right decision for you.
  • Counseling. Sometimes the struggle is just as much mental as physical. Whether you see a counselor on your own or as a couple, you can get advice on ways to increase intimacy and handle the frustrations you feel when your body isn’t working the way it once did.
  • Practice intimacy. Be open about your struggles, and as a couple, try to find different ways stimulating arousal or promoting intimacy. It’s often a learning experience and a journey to adjust your sex life after cancer.

Whatever path you choose, remember to be honest with your doctor about what you’re going through; this ensures you get the best treatment for you.

Problems in the bedroom aren't always physical. Finding the right support helps you feel more comfortable while you go through cancer treatment and remission.

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Patricia Chaney
Patricia Chaney