Interventions for sexual dysfunction following treatments for cancer


In women sexual dysfunction is a potential complication of many types of cancer treatments.

This review evaluated the effectiveness of treatments (interventions) of any kind, for example drugs or exercise, for treating sexual dysfunction in women following cancer treatment.

The review is an update of one published in 2007 that assessed the effectiveness of interventions for men and women. We decided to present this revised review separately for women because of the increase in the number of trials. Another review for men is underway.

Study characteristics

We identified 11 new trials on interventions for women in September 2015. We excluded one trial that was included in the earlier version of this review because it assessed treatment for preventing sexual dysfunction and was no longer relevant to this review. Interventions differed in their content and how the researchers measured benefit. Eight of the interventions involved psychological support such as counselling on sexual matters, or peer support. One of the others was of a testosterone cream, another tested a vaginal pH-balanced gel and the other was of pelvic floor exercise. The findings from six of the trials are weak because they involved small numbers of women.

Key results

Across the trials the impact on sexual function was different. This makes it difficult to derive clear conclusions. For instance, in those that evaluated a psychological support treatment, four studies found that it improved some measures of sexual function but not others, but five found that it did not improve sexual function according to any of the measures used. For the other interventions tested, only the trial of the vaginal gel found improvements in sexual function and no side effects were reported. Only one of the psychological interventions reported that no harm occurred because of the intervention. The other trials of psychological support did not assess harm. This is an important gap as some women may find it distressing to discuss personal sexual problems as part of their treatment.

Further evaluations are needed for all interventions. Current studies have only explored effectiveness in women with gynaecological and breast cancers, but there is a risk of sexual problems after treatments for other cancers. New evaluations need to involve larger numbers of participants.

Authors' conclusions: 

Since the last version of this review, the new studies do not provide clear information on the impact of interventions for sexual dysfunction following treatments for cancer in women. The sexual dysfunction interventions in this review are not representative of the range that is available for women, or of the wider range of cancers in which treatments are known to increase the risk of sexual problems. Further evaluations are needed.

Read the full abstract...

The proportion of people living with and surviving cancer is growing. This has led to increased awareness of the importance of quality of life, including sexual function, in those affected by cancer. Sexual dysfunction is a potential long-term complication of many cancer treatments. This includes treatments that have a direct impact on the pelvic area and genitals, and also treatments that have a more generalised (systemic) impact on sexual function.

This is an update of the original Cochrane review published in Issue 4, 2007, on interventions for treating sexual dysfunction following treatments for cancer for men and women. Since publication in 2007, there has been an increase in the number of trials for both men and women and this current review critiques only those for women. A review in press will present those for men.


To evaluate the effectiveness of interventions for treating sexual dysfunction in women following treatments for cancer. To assess adverse events associated with interventions.

Search strategy: 

We searched the Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials (CENTRAL 2015, Issue 9), MEDLINE, EMBASE, PsycINFO, AMED, CINAHL, Dissertation Abstracts and the NHS Research Register. The searches were originally run in January 2007 and we updated these to September 2015.

Selection criteria: 

We included randomised controlled trials (RCTs) that assessed the effectiveness of a treatment for sexual dysfunction. The trial participants were women who had developed sexual dysfunction as a consequence of a cancer treatment. We sought evaluations of interventions that were pharmaceutical, mechanical, psychotherapeutic, complementary or that involved physical exercise.

Data collection and analysis: 

Two review authors independently extracted the data and assessed trial quality. We considered meta-analysis for trials with comparable key characteristics.

Main results: 

Since the original version of this review we have identified 11 new studies in women. The one study identified in the earlier version of this review was excluded in this update as it did not meet our narrower inclusion criteria to include only interventions for the treatment, not prevention, of sexual dysfunction.

In total 1509 female participants were randomised across 11 trials. All trials explored interventions following treatment either for gynaecological or breast cancer. Eight trials evaluated a psychotherapeutic or psycho-educational intervention. Two trials evaluated a pharmaceutical intervention and one pelvic floor exercises. All involved heterosexual women. Eight studies were at a high risk of bias as they involved a sample of fewer than 50 participants per trial arm. The trials varied not only in intervention content but in outcome measurements, thereby restricting combined analysis. In the trials evaluating a psychotherapeutic intervention the effect on sexual dysfunction was mixed; in three trials benefit was found for some measures of sexual function and in five trials no benefit was found. Evidence from the other three trials, two on different pharmaceutical applications and one on exercise, differed and was limited by small sample sizes. Only the trial of a pH-balanced vaginal gel found significant improvements in sexual function. The trials of pharmaceutical interventions measured harm: neither reported any. Only one psychological intervention trial reported that no harm occurred because of the intervention; the other trials of psychological support did not measure harm.