Amelioration of sexual adverse effects in the early breast
Michelle E. Melisko & Mindy Goldman & Hope S. Rugo
Received: 11 June 2009 /Accepted: 3 June 2010 /Published online: 4 July 2010
# The Author(s) 2010. This article is published with open access at Springerlink.com
Background As the number of breast cancer survivors
increases, the long term consequences of breast cancer
treatment are gaining attention. Sexual dysfunction is a
common complaint amongst breast cancer survivors, and
there are few evidence based recommendations and even
fewer well designed clinical trials to establish what treat-
ments are safe or effective in this patient population.
Design We conducted a PubMed searchfor articles published
between 1995–2009 containing the terms breast cancer,
sexual dysfunction, libido, vaginal dryness, testosterone, and
vaginal estrogen. We initially reviewed articles focusing
exclusively on sexual issues in breast cancer patients. Given
the paucity of clinical trials addressing sexual issues in breast
cancer patients, we also included studies evaluating both
hormone and non-hormone based interventions for sexual
dysfunction in post-menopausal women in general.
Conclusions Among breast cancer survivors, vaginal dryness
and lossof libido represent someof the mostchallenging long
term side effects of breast cancer treatment. In the general
post-menopausal population,topical preparationsofestrogens
and testosterone both appear to improve sexual function;
however there are conflicting reports about the efficacy and
safetyof these interventions in women with a history ofbreast
cancer, and further research is warranted.
Keywords Breast cancer.Estrogen.Libido.Sexual
Over 200,000 new cases of breast cancer are diagnosed
each year in the United States. Many breast cancer patients
receive multi-modality therapy including surgery, chemo-
therapy, and hormonal therapy which cure disease or
prolong life, but the long term side effects of these
treatments can significantly impact quality of life. As many
women diagnosed with breast cancer today will be long-
term survivors of their disease, the long-term impact of
therapy on emotional and physical well-being has become a
growing topic for research. Sexual dysfunction following
breast cancer treatment has recently received more attention
as a side effect of therapy requiring effective and safe
intervention. This paper will focus on existing data
regarding the causes and potential treatments of sexual
adverse events that contribute to sexual dysfunction,
including vaginal dryness, loss of libido, body image
issues, and the use of antidepressants.
Systematic review methods
In this systematic review, we sought to answer the question
“What is the available evidence to support the use of either
hormone or non-hormone based therapies for the treatment
of vaginal dryness, decreased libido, and other forms of
sexual dysfunction in breast cancer patients?” We con-
ducted a PubMed search for articles in humans published in
English between 1995–2009 containing the term “breast
cancer” along with any of the following terms: sexual
M. E. Melisko (*):H. S. Rugo
Department of Medicine, University of California San Francisco,
Box 1710, San Francisco, CA 94115, USA
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology,
University of California San Francisco,
San Francisco, CA, USA
J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255
dysfunction, vaginal dryness, libido, testosterone, and
vaginal estrogen. Using this search strategy, we found a
total over 1140 articles. We then searched within these
articles to identify cohort and survey studies or clinical
trials that addressed any component of sexual dysfunction
in breast cancer patients. Given the paucity of clinical trials
addressing sexual issues in breast cancer patients, we also
included studies evaluating both hormone and non-
hormone based interventions for sexual dysfunction in
post-menopausal women in general.
Sexual dysfunction in breast cancer patients: effect
of systemic therapy and antidepressants
There is a growing body of literature suggesting that sexual
dysfunction is a common and distressing problem experi-
enced by many breast cancer survivors. Sexual issues
identified in breast cancer survivors include changes in
body image associated with the loss of a breast or weight
gain, decreased libido, vaginal dryness, and dyspareunia,
difficulty with arousal and orgasm, and concern over
fertility. Among sexually active and recurrence free breast
cancer patients who had completed surgery, chemotherapy,
and radiation therapy, 64% percent of the women reported
an absence of sexual desire, 38% suffered from dyspar-
eunia, and 42% experienced lubrication problems . In
another study of breast cancer survivors, sexual dysfunction
occurred more frequently in women who had received
chemotherapy and in younger women who were no longer
menstruating . Among breast cancer survivors who were
an average of 4.4 years since diagnosis, sexual functioning
was significantly poorer than that of published normal
controls in all areas but desire . In these patients,
relationship distress was a significant variable affecting
arousal, orgasm, lubrication, sexual satisfaction, and sexual
pain. Depression was an important determinant of lower
sexual desire, and survivors on antidepressants had greater
problems with arousal and achieving orgasm. Burwell et al.
examined features of sexual dysfunction in 209 sexually
active breast cancer patients (≤ 50 years), and in a
multivariate analyses, vaginal dryness and lower perceived
sexual attractiveness were associated with greater overall
sexual dysfunction. Women who became post-menopausal
after chemotherapy reported more sexual problems than
those without a menopausal transition .
Vaginal dryness and dyspareunia have been found to be
prevalent in young breast cancer survivors , and studies
have shown that vaginal dryness is one of the most
important predictors of sexual functioning for women with
breast cancer [6, 7]. In a study examining symptoms among
a multi-ethnic breast cancer patient population, vaginal
dryness was the symptom that rated as the highest unmet
need . Loss of libido and inability to become aroused
and achieve orgasm are also common complaints among
breast cancer patients [7, 9]. There are multiple reasons for
these problems including changes in estrogen and androgen
levels, preoccupation with and stress related to a breast
cancer diagnosis, and use of medications that are associated
with sexual dysfunction.
itors (SSRIs) and venlafaxine, are frequently associated with
sexual dysfunction. In a study of 610 women with previously
normal sexual function, the overall incidence of sexual
dysfunction was 56.9% among women being treated with
antidepressants alone or with benzodiazepines . Signifi-
cant differences in the rates of sexual dysfunction among
different antidepressants were noted, with the highest rates
and the lowest rates associated with monoamine oxidase
inhibitors and atypical tricyclic antidepressants.
Many breast cancer patients use antidepressants not only
for mood disturbances, but also at reduced doses for hot
flashes. In a placebo controlled trial evaluating venlafaxine
as a treatment for hot flashes in breast cancer patients,
patients randomized to venlafaxine experienced an increase
in libido as measured by a single item on the Beck
depression inventory compared to patients randomized to
placebo . However, in a subsequent trial comparing a
single intramuscular dose of medroxyprogesterone acetate
to venlafaxine as treatment for hot flashes in post-
menopausal patients with and without a history of breast
cancer, treatment with venlafaxine was associated with
increased difficulty with orgasm .
An interaction between tamoxifen and several SSRIs
metabolized by the CYP2D6 enzyme pathway has been
identified. Alterations in tamoxifen metabolism, either by
certain CYP2D6 polymorphisms or concurrent use of
certain antidepressants has been associated with differences
in rates of vasomotor symptoms, and more importantly,
breast cancer recurrence risk (See recent review ). In
light of this information, and since many SSRIs are
associated with decrease in sexual desire and interference
with arousal and orgasm, selection of alternate antidepres-
sants in breast cancer patients with sexual complaints may
be warranted. Bupropion, an atypical antidepressant that
acts as a norepinephrine and dopamine reuptake inhibitor,
and as a nicotinic antagonist was investigated in 26 breast
cancer patients . Based on responses to the Arizona
Sexual Experience Scale (ASEX), patients reported improve-
ments in sexual function after 4 and 8 weeks of treatment. A
randomized trial of bupropion vs. other antidepressants, both
atstandardand lower doses (similartothose usedfor hot flash
248J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255
management), would provide valuable information and offer
options for breast cancer patients with both depression and
Impact of specific hormonal therapies on gynecologic
symptoms and sexual dysfunction
A number of studies have evaluated gynecologic symptoms
in breast cancer patients receiving hormonal therapy. In a
prospective study of 181 consecutive postmenopausal breast
cancer patients starting endocrine treatment, dyspareunia
was significantly increased with non-steroidal aromatase
inhibitors (AIs) compared to baseline, and patients receiving
tamoxifen experienced significant decrease in sexual interest
. The quality of life sub-study of the Arimidex,
Tamoxifen, Alone or in Combination (ATAC) adjuvant breast
cancer trial found that the incidence of vaginal dryness,
dyspareunia, and loss of sexual interest in women taking AIs
was significant. These symptoms were particularly bother-
some in women who experienced acute chemotherapy
induced menopause . In the 5 year follow up of this
sub-study, vaginal discharge was less frequently bothersome
with anastrozole than tamoxifen (1.2% vs. 5.2%) but vaginal
dryness (18.5% vs. 9.1%), dyspareunia (17.3% vs. 8.1%),
and reduced libido (34.0% vs. 26.1%) were all more
common with anastrozole compared with tamoxifen .
In the quality of life sub-study for the Intergroup Exemestane
Study (IES), loss of libido was common and did not differ
between groups receiving tamoxifen for 5 years compared to
those patients who switched over to exemestane after 2–
3 years of tamoxifen. There were no differences between the
tamoxifen or exemestane groups for vaginal dryness,
discomfort with intercourse, and vaginal irritation .
Even in patients without a diagnosis of breast cancer,
hormonal therapies appear to have an impact on sexual
function. Analysis of quality of life data from the Study of
Raloxifene and Tamoxifen (STAR) prevention trial found
that a higher percentage of women randomized to the
tamoxifen arm remained sexually active compared to
women in the raloxifene arm. Among sexually active
participants, women randomized to the raloxifene group
experienced significantly more dyspareunia, greater diffi-
culties with sexual interest, sexual arousal, and sexual
enjoyment, but no significant difference in the ability to
experience an orgasm .
Management of urogenital atrophy in post menopausal
women without breast cancer
In the setting of estrogen deprivation, the mucosal and
stromal tissues of the vagina, urethra, and trigone of the
bladder undergo atrophy, resulting in decreased tissue
elasticity and fluid secretion. This may lead to symptomatic
vaginal dryness and irritation as well as dyspareunia.
Estrogen deprivation also leads to an elevation in vaginal
pH which may increase the risk of vaginal and urinary tract
infections. Review of the literature on management of
vaginal symptoms in post-menopausal women (most
without a history of breast cancer) identifies several
therapies that appear to be effective in improving vaginal
dryness and decreasing dyspareunia.
The twenty-five microgram 17 beta-estradiol vaginal tablet
(Vagifem) was compared to 1.25-mg conjugated equine
estrogen vaginal cream (Premarin Vaginal Cream) for the
relief of atrophic vaginitis in post-menopausal women .
Both treatments provided equivalent relief of the symptoms
of atrophic vaginitis based on composite scores of vaginal
symptoms (dryness, soreness, and irritation). At weeks 2, 12,
and 24, increases in serum estradiol concentrations and
suppression of follicle-stimulating hormone (FSH) were
observed in significantly more patients who were using the
vaginal cream than in those who were using the vaginal
tablets (p<0.001). Vaginal tablet therapy resulted in
greater patient acceptance and lower withdrawal rates
compared with vaginal cream therapy. In a double-blind
placebo-controlled, 1612 post-menopausal patients with
urogenital complaints were randomized to receive the
Vagifem insert or placebo tablet once a day over a period
of 2 weeks, and then twice a week for a total of the
12 months . The overall success rates of Vagifem vs.
placebo on subjective and objective symptoms of vaginal
atrophy were 85.5%, and 41.4%, respectively. A signifi-
cant improvement of urinary atrophy symptoms was also
seen in the Vagifem treated group as compared with the
beginning of the study (51.9% vs. 15.5%, p=0.001).
Compared to baseline evaluations, therapy with the
Vagifem insert did not raise serum 17β-estradiol levels
or stimulate endometrial growth based on mean endome-
A slow release estradiol vaginal ring (Estring) has been
compared to a topical estriol cream (Synapause®) in a
12 week treatment study in postmenopausal women. The
Estring was found to be well tolerated, produced equivalent
results in reducing vaginal symptoms, and was preferred by
patients as less messy and easier to use . Clinical trials
with Estring have shown that there is minimal systemic
absorption of estradiol and the range of serum estradiol
levels measured at various time points fell within the post-
menopausal range . A prospective randomized study
compared the Estring to the Vagifem insert for relief of
estrogen deficiency symptoms in post menopausal women
over a period of 12 months . The primary endpoint was
endometrial safety based on the results of ultrasound
measurement of endometrial thickness and the proportion
of subjects who experienced vaginal bleeding or spotting
J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255249
after a progestogen challenge test. Efficacy was determined
by changes in patient reported urogenital estrogen deficien-
cy symptoms including vaginal dryness, vulvar pruritus,
dyspareunia, dysuria, and urinary urgency and frequency.
Evaluation of vaginal epithelial atrophy including pallor,
petechiae, friability, and vaginal dryness was also per-
formed by the investigators who graded each between 0 and
4. There was no statistical difference between the groups in
the alleviation of symptoms and signs of urogenital
estrogen deficiency, and after 48 weeks of treatment, there
was no statistically significant difference in endometrial
thickness between the two groups. Estradiol and total
estrone serum levels increased during treatment in both
groups but remained within the postmenopausal range.
Safety of vaginal estrogen preparations in breast cancer
While the intravaginal estrogen preparations (creams, tablet
inserts, and rings) are all reasonably effective in many post-
menopausal patients, the level of systemic estrogen absorp-
tion is variable. One small study has raised concerns about
a rapid rise in serum estradiol levels with the use of the
Vagifem insert in post-menopausal breast cancer patients on
aromatase inhibitors . Serum estradiol, follicle stimulat-
ing hormone (FSH), and luteinizing hormone (LH) levels
were measured serially in seven postmenopausal women
usingtheVagifeminsert while beingtreatedwithAIsforearly
stage breast cancer. Serum estradiol levels, as measured by an
assay specifically developed for measuring low levels in
postmenopausal women, rose from baseline levels≤5
majority (median 16 pmol/l) although two women continued
to have further rise in estradiol levels. The authors concluded
that Vagifem significantly raises systemic estradiol levels, at
least early in the course of treatment for vaginal atrophy. The
authors also offered the opinion that this reversal of estradiol
suppression is contraindicated in women being treated with
AIs for breast cancer.
Tibolone is a synthetic steroid that has been classified as a
selective tissue estrogenic activity regulator (STEAR). It is
currently approved in Europe and other countries outside
the United States to treat menopausal symptoms and
osteoporosis. Tibolone is converted into three metabolites
which have varying effects in different tissues due to site-
selective enzyme regulation and/or receptor binding and
activation. Data suggests that tibolone does not stimulate
the breast due to effects on local enzyme activity that
inhibit formation of active estrogens . Studies in cell
lines suggest that tibolone decreases proliferation rate and
increases differentiation and apoptosis .
Because of its preclinical biological behavior and safety
profile, tibolone has been studied in a number of trials to
alleviate post-menopausal symptoms. In an open-label non-
randomized trial of 113 post-menopausal women, treatment
with tibolone over a 6 year period reversed vaginal atrophy
and relieved symptoms including vaginal dryness, dyspareu-
nia, and urinary symptoms compared to no treatment in
matched voluntary controls . In the LIFT (Long term
Intervention on Fractures with Tibolone ) trial , tibolone at a
dose of 1.25 mg per day was compared to placebo in 4538
post-menopausal women with osteoporosis and without a
history of cancer in the 5 years prior to enrollment . This
trial was closed early when the tibolone group, during
34 months of median follow up, was found to have increased
risk of stroke compared to the placebo group. The tibolone
group did experience a decreased risk of vertebral and non-
vertebral fractures and interestingly also had a significantly
decreased risk of invasive breast cancer and colon cancer.
A prospective randomized trial evaluated the safety of
tibolone 2.5 mg/day (Livial®) compared to placebo in over
entry, 67% of women were taking tamoxifen while only 6.5%
women were taking aromatase inhibitors. In May 2007, the
independent Data Safety Monitoring Boardrecommendedearly
termination of the trial due to an excess of breast cancer
recurrences in the tibolone arm . After a median follow-up
of 3.1 years, 15.2% women on tibolone experienced a cancer
recurrence, compared with 10.7% on placebo (HR 1.40; p=
0.001) . No difference was observed between tibolone and
placebo in regard to other safety outcomes including mortality,
cardiovascular events, or gynecological cancers. Vasomotor
symptoms and bone-mineral density improved significantly
appear to be a safe option for management of hot flashes or
vaginal symptoms in breast cancer patients. It is intriguing,
however, that the lower dose of tibolone tested in the LIFT trial
resulted in a reduction in breast cancer risk among osteoporotic
tibolone might be safe in breast cancer patients is unknown.
Non-hormonal and educational interventions to improve
vaginal dryness and sexual function in breast cancer
The non-hormonal polycarbophil-based vaginal moisturizer
Replens was compared to a placebo lubricating agent in
small double-blind, crossover, randomized clinical trial of
breast cancer patients. Vaginal dryness and dyspareunia
250J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255
showed similar improvement in both the Replens and the
placebo arms . Studies comparing Replens to topical
estrogen creams in postmenopausal patients without a breast
and dyspareunia with Replens and vaginal estrogen creams
[33, 34], but comparison of hormonal and non-hormonal
agents have not been made in breast cancer patients.
A 6 week randomized psycho-educational group interven-
tion was tested among breast cancer patients who reported
persistent problems in body image, sexual function or partner
communication 1–5 years after diagnosis . Patients with
severe depression or significant relationship issues were
excluded. Patients randomized to the intervention were
offered the opportunity to attend six 2 hour sessions aimed
at improving satisfaction with sexual functioning and
intimate relationships by providing information, enhancing
communication skills and reducing anxiety in intimate
situations. Control patients received a general pamphlet for
breast cancer survivors. Patients randomized to the interven-
tion group reported improvements in relationship adjustment
and increased satisfaction with sex compared to controls.
Relationship between testosterone, breast cancer risk,
and sexual function
In humans, the adrenal glands and the ovaries represent the
main sources of circulating androgens in women. The
adrenal steroid dehydroepiandrosterone (DHEA) represents
the crucial precursor of human sex steroid biosynthesis.
DHEA and its sulfate ester (DHEAS) are the most abundant
steroids in the human circulation. DHEA of adrenal origin
may be converted to testosterone within the postmenopausal
ovary. Removal of the ovaries, even in a post-menopausal
patient, may alter testosterone levels and have an impact on
libido and other aspects of sexual function.
(DHT) or it can be aromatized into estrogens. Therefore, an
increase in the circulating testosterone pool may be associated
with increased estrogen generation within peripheral target
tissues of sex steroid action. However, the role of testosterone
on breast tissue is not certain. Animal studies suggest that
testosterone may serve as a natural, endogenous protector of
the breast and limit mitogenic and cancer promoting effects of
estrogen on mammary epithelium. In ovariectomized rhesus
monkeys, testosterone was given in combination with 17beta
estradiol (E2) for 3 days. Compared to E2 administration
alone, testosterone reduced E2-induced proliferation by
approximately 40% and entirely abolished E2-induced aug-
mentation of estrogen receptor alpha expression .
An association between elevated endogenous testoster-
one levels and increased risk of breast cancer has been
suggested in some case control studies [37, 38], but other
studies have not found this association, particularly when
testosterone levels are adjusted for estradiol levels [39, 40].
In a comprehensive review on this topic, methodological
differences between these studies and the variability in
assays used for measurement of free and total testosterone
are identified as probably reasons for this inconsistent data
. Testosterone levels have also been evaluated as a risk
factor for recurrence in breast cancer patients. In a nested
case-control study from the randomized diet trial (Women’s
Healthy Eating and Living Study), baseline serum concen-
trations of estradiol, testosterone, and sex hormone binding
globulin were compared in women with breast cancer with
and without recurrence with >7 years of follow up . In
153 case-control pairs of perimenopausal and postmeno-
pausal women in this analysis, total estradiol, bioavailable
estradiol, and free estradiol concentrations were significantly
associated with risk for recurrence, whereas testosterone and
sex hormone binding globulin concentrations did not differ
between cases and controls and were not associated with risk
Effect of testosterone replacement on sexual function
A large cross-sectional study found no evidence of a
significant decrease in circulating androgens during the
menopause transition . During the natural menopausal
transition, circulating androgen levels do not drop dramati-
cally from the premenopausal state. However, oophorectomy
and premature ovarian failure seem to result in a more
profound decrease in circulating androgens [44, 45]. The
currently available data suggests that women with near-total
depletion of androgens (such as following a bilateral
oophorectomy or with adrenal insufficiency) and concurrent
complaints of impaired well-being and libido are the most
likely to benefit from androgen replacement therapy .
Beneficial effects on libido and mood have been reported in
studies on testosterone replacement in surgically menopausal
women [47, 48]. In a study of seventy-five women who had
undergone oophorectomy, patients received conjugated
equine estrogens (at least 0.625 mg per day orally) and then
were randomized to either placebo, 150 micrograms, or 300
micrograms of transdermal testosterone daily for 12 weeks
. The higher testosterone dose resulted in significant
increases in scores for frequency of sexual activity and
pleasure-orgasm compared to placebo. In a much larger and
more recent study, 814 postmenopausal women with hypo-
active sexual desire disorder who were not receiving estrogen
therapy were randomized to a patch delivering 150 or 300
micrograms of testosterone per day or placebo . At
24 weeks, a significant improvement in the 4-week frequency
of satisfying sexual episodes was observed in the group
receiving 300 micrograms of testosterone per day but not in
the group receiving 150 micrograms per day. As compared
J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255251
Table 1 Interventions tested for vaginal dryness and/or loss of libido
Breast cancer Pts included
Polycarbophil based vaginal moisturizer
Vaginal dryness, dyspareunia
Decreased vaginal dryness and dyspareunia
17beta-estradiol vaginal tablet (Vagifem)
[20, 21, 24, 25]
Atrophic vaginitis symptoms
Yes, only in one study 
Improvement in atrophic vaginitis  Improvement in vaginal atrophy and
urinary symptoms 
Improvement in vaginal maturation
with no increase in endometrial
proliferation. Estradiol levels rosebut remained within the normalpostmenopausal range 
Significant increase in estradiol levels in some
Conjugated equine estrogen vaginal cream
Atrophic vaginitis symptoms
Improvement in atrophic vaginitis but
more endometrial proliferation than
with Vagifem 
Topical estriol cream (Synapause®) 
Improved vaginal dryness and atrophy
Estradiol vaginal ring (Estring) [22, 24, 53]
Serum estradiol, total
Yes, only in one ongoing
Improved vaginal dryness and atrophy 
Improvement in vaginal maturation with
no increase in endometrial proliferation.
Estradiol levels rose but remained within
the normal postmenopausal range 
Transdermal testosterone patch [49, 50]
Sexual activity, orgasm
Increase in frequency of sexual activity
and pleasure 
Increase in sexual desire, decreased distress 
Transdermal testosterone in Vanicream 
No significant improvement in libido
Vaginal testosterone cream 
Vaginal dryness, libido
Serum estradiol, total
252J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255
with placebo, both doses of testosterone were associated with
significant increases in desire and decreases in distress. The
number of breast cancer cases was low overall (four women
who received testosterone as compared with none who
received placebo), so no conclusions can be drawn regarding
increasing breast cancer risk as a result of this intervention.
Testosterone replacement in breast cancer patients
A small case series described improvements in sexual
function and satisfaction in three patients with a history of
breast cancer treated with a combination of testosterone
supplementation and either vaginal estrogen tablets (Vagifem)
or systemic estrogen replacement . Each of the patients
underwent a comprehensive gynecological and psychosexual
evaluation and was advised of the lack of safety data on
testosterone supplementation in breast cancer patients.
These patients expressed understanding of the risks and
opted to continue testosterone therapy. In this case series,
as with most studies of testosterone replacement in patients
without breast cancer, estrogen replacement was adminis-
tered concurrently with androgens to help alleviate vaginal
dryness. Little is known about the effect of testosterone
replacement in women with breast cancer who are in an
estrogen depleted state. A recent study evaluated the impact
of transdermal testosterone on libido in postmenopausal
female survivors of cancer . One hundred and fifty
women were randomized to 4 weeks of 2% testosterone in
Vanicream or placebo in Vanicream, followed by a crossover
to the alternate therapy for 4 additional weeks. The majority
of women were taking either tamoxifen (46%) or AIs (30%).
Despite significant increases in free and bioavailable
testosterone levels (and no increase in estradiol levels), there
was no significant improvement in sexual desire for women
taking transdermal testosterone. Taken together, these data
suggest that testosterone replacement is most likely to
improve libido in women who are also receiving supple-
mental estrogen, a situation not recommended to most breast
The University of California San Francisco (UCSF) is
conducting a pilot trial evaluating the safety and tolerability
of the ESTRING or 1% testosterone cream administered
vaginally for 12 weeks as treatment for vaginal dryness
and/or decreased libido in post-menopausal women receiv-
ing an AI for Stage I-III breast cancer . The primary
objective is to evaluate safety by determining whether an
unacceptable number of patients receiving either of these
treatments experience an elevation of serum estradiol level
outside of the post-menopausal range at several time points.
This study will also objectively evaluate changes in vaginal
epithelium over the 12 week treatment period and will
explore whether either of these treatments are effective in
improving gynecologic or sexual quality of life in this
The North Central Cancer Treatment Group (NCCTG) is
currently conducting a randomized placebo controlled phase
III trial to evaluate the efficacy and toxicities associated with
pilocarpine, a non-selective muscarinic receptor agonist in the
parasympathetic nervous system, as treatment for vaginal
dryness in post-menopausal women either with a history of
fear of increased risk of breast cancer .
Table 1 summarizes the spectrum of pharmacologic
interventions studied for female sexual dysfunction and
identifies studies that have included breast cancer patients.
In summary, sexual dysfunction has a significant impact on
quality of life in breast cancer survivors. Symptoms of
sexual dysfunction, including vaginal dryness and de-
creased libido are prevalent among breast cancer survivors,
particularly in patients treated with AIs, and may lead to
non-compliance or discontinuation of hormonal therapy in
some patients. Further research, including special attention
to the safety of hormone based interventions, is necessary
to manage this complication of breast cancer treatment.
Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial License which per-
mits any noncommercial use, distribution, and reproduction in any
medium, provided the original author(s) and source are credited.
This article is distributed under the terms of the
1. Barni S, Mondin R. Sexual dysfunction in treated breast cancer
patients. Ann Oncol. 1997;8:149–53.
after breast cancer: understanding women’s health-related quality of
life and sexual functioning. J Clin Oncol. 1998;16:501–14.
3. Speer JJ, Hillenberg B, Sugrue DP, et al. Study of sexual
functioning determinants in breast cancer survivors. Breast J.
4. Burwell SR, Case LD, Kaelin C, Avis NE. Sexual problems in
younger women after breast cancer surgery. J Clin Oncol.
5. Ganz PA, Greendale GA, Petersen L, Kahn B, Bower JE. Breast
cancer in younger women: reproductive and late health effects of
treatment. J Clin Oncol. 2003;21:4184–93.
6. Ganz PA, Desmond KA, Leedham B, Rowland JH, Meyerowitz
BE, Belin TR. Quality of life in long-term, disease-free survivors
of breast cancer: a follow-up study. J Natl Cancer Inst.
J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255253
7. Broeckel JA, Thors CL, Jacobsen PB, Small M, Cox CE.
Sexual functioning in long-term breast cancer survivors treated
with adjuvant chemotherapy. Breast Cancer Res Treat.
8. Yoon J, Malin JL, Tisnado DM, et al. Symptom management after
breast cancer treatment: is it influenced by patient characteristics?
Breast Cancer Res Treat 2007.
9. Young-McCaughan S. Sexual functioning in women with breast
cancer after treatment with adjuvant therapy. Cancer Nurs.
10. Montejo AL, Llorca G, Izquierdo JA, Rico-Villademoros F.
Incidence of sexual dysfunction associated with antidepressant
agents: a prospective multicenter study of 1022 outpatients.
Spanish Working Group for the Study of Psychotropic-Related
Sexual Dysfunction. J Clin Psychiatry. 2001;62 Suppl 3:10–21.
11. Loprinzi CL, Kugler JW, Sloan JA, et al. Venlafaxine in
management of hot flashes in survivors of breast cancer: a
randomised controlled trial. Lancet. 2000;356:2059–63.
12. Loprinzi CL, Levitt R, Barton D, et al. Phase III comparison of
depomedroxyprogesterone acetate to venlafaxine for managing
hot flashes: North Central Cancer Treatment Group Trial N99C7.
J Clin Oncol. 2006;24:1409–14.
13. Desmarais JE, Looper KJ. Interactions between tamoxifen and
antidepressants via cytochrome P450 2D6. J Clin Psychiatry.
14. Mathias C, Cardeal Mendes CM, Ponde de Sena E, et al. An
open-label, fixed-dose study of bupropion effect on sexual
function scores in women treated for breast cancer. Ann Oncol.
15. Morales L,Neven P, Timmerman D,et al.Acute effects of tamoxifen
and third-generation aromatase inhibitors on menopausal symptoms
of breast cancer patients. Anticancer Drugs. 2004;15:753–60.
16. Fallowfield L, Cella D, Cuzick J, Francis S, Locker G, Howell A.
Quality of life of postmenopausal women in the Arimidex,
Tamoxifen, Alone or in Combination (ATAC) Adjuvant Breast
Cancer Trial. J Clin Oncol. 2004;22:4261–71.
17. Cella D, Fallowfield L, Barker P, Cuzick J, Locker G, Howell A.
Quality of life of postmenopausal women in the ATAC (“Arimi-
dex”, tamoxifen, alone or in combination) trial after completion of
5 years’ adjuvant treatment for early breast cancer. Breast Cancer
Res Treat. 2006;100:273–84.
18. Fallowfield LJ, Bliss JM, Porter LS, et al. Quality of life in the
intergroup exemestane study: a randomized trial of exemestane
versus continued tamoxifen after 2 to 3 years of tamoxifen in
postmenopausal women with primary breast cancer. J Clin Oncol.
19. Land SR, Wickerham DL, Costantino JP, et al. Patient-reported
symptoms and quality of life during treatment with tamoxifen or
raloxifene for breast cancer prevention: the NSABP Study of
Tamoxifen and Raloxifene (STAR) P-2 trial. Jama.
20. Rioux JE, Devlin C, Gelfand MM, Steinberg WM, Hepburn DS.
17beta-estradiol vaginal tablet versus conjugated equine estrogen
vaginal cream to relieve menopausal atrophic vaginitis. Meno-
pause (New York, NY). 2000;7:156–61.
21. Simunic V, Banovic I, Ciglar S, Jeren L, Pavicic Baldani D,
Sprem M. Local estrogen treatment in patients with urogenital
symptoms. Int J Gynaecol Obstet. 2003;82:187–97.
22. Barentsen R, van de Weijer PH, Schram JH. Continuous low dose
estradiol released from a vaginal ring versus estriol vaginal cream
for urogenital atrophy. Eur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol.
23. Sarkar NN. Low-dose intravaginal estradiol delivery using a
Silastic vaginal ring for estrogen replacement therapy in post-
menopausal women: a review. Eur J Contracept Reprod Health
24. Weisberg E, Ayton R, Darling G, et al. Endometrial and vaginal
effects of low-dose estradiol delivered by vaginal ring or vaginal
tablet. Climacteric. 2005;8:83–92.
25. Kendall A, Dowsett M, Folkerd E, Smith I. Caution: vaginal
estradiol appears to be contraindicated in postmenopausal women
on adjuvant aromatase inhibitors. Ann Oncol. 2006;17:584–7.
26. Kloosterboer HJ. Tissue-selective effects of tibolone on the breast.
27. Gompel A, Siromachkova M, Lombet A, Kloosterboer HJ,
Rostene W. Tibolone actions on normal and breast cancer cells.
Eur J Cancer. 2000;36 Suppl 4:S76–7.
28. Morris EP, Wilson PO, Robinson J, Rymer JM. Long term effects
of tibolone on the genital tract in postmenopausal women. Br J
Obstet Gynaecol. 1999;106:954–9.
29. Cummings SR, Ettinger B, Delmas PD, et al. The effects of
tibolone in older postmenopausal women. N Engl J Med.
30. Tibolone study in breast cancer patients to close ahead of
schedule. 2007 [cited 2007 October 6]; Press Release]. Available
31. Kenemans P, Bundred NJ, Foidart JM, et al. Safety and efficacy of
tibolone in breast-cancer patients with vasomotor symptoms: a
double-blind, randomised, non-inferiority trial. Lancet Oncol.
32. Loprinzi CL, Abu-Ghazaleh S, Sloan JA, et al. Phase III
randomized double-blind study to evaluate the efficacy of a
polycarbophil-based vaginal moisturizer in women with breast
cancer. J Clin Oncol. 1997;15:969–73.
33. Bygdeman M, Swahn ML. Replens versus dienoestrol cream in
the symptomatic treatment of vaginal atrophy in postmenopausal
women. Maturitas. 1996;23:259–63.
34. Nachtigall LE. Comparative study: replens versus local estrogen
in menopausal women. Fertil Steril. 1994;61:178–80.
35. Rowland JH, Meyerowitz BE, Crespi CM, et al. Addressing
intimacy and partner communication after breast cancer: a
randomized controlled group intervention. Breast Cancer Res
36. Zhou J, Ng S, Adesanya-Famuiya O, Anderson K, Bondy CA.
Testosterone inhibits estrogen-induced mammary epithelial prolif-
eration and suppresses estrogen receptor expression. FASEB J.
37. Berrino F, Muti P, Micheli A, et al. Serum sex hormone levels
after menopause and subsequent breast cancer. J Natl Cancer Inst.
38. Yu H, Shu XO, Shi R, et al. Plasma sex steroid hormones and
breast cancer risk in Chinese women. Int J Cancer. 2003;105:92–
39. Hankinson SE, Willett WC, Manson JE, et al. Plasma sex steroid
hormone levels and risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal
women. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1998;90:1292–9.
40. Zeleniuch-Jacquotte A, Bruning PF, Bonfrer JM, et al. Relation of
serum levels of testosterone and dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate to
risk of breast cancer in postmenopausal women. Am J Epidemiol.
41. Somboonporn W, Davis SR. Postmenopausal testosterone therapy
and breast cancer risk. Maturitas. 2004;49:267–75.
42. Rock CL, Flatt SW, Laughlin GA, et al. Reproductive steroid
hormones and recurrence-free survival in women with a history of
breast cancer. Cancer Epidemiol Biomark Prev. 2008;17:614–20.
43. Davison SL, Bell R, Donath S, Montalto JG, Davis SR. Androgen
levels in adult females: changes with age, menopause, and
oophorectomy. J Clin Endocrinol Metab. 2005;90:3847–53.
44. Laughlin GA, Barrett-Connor E, Kritz-Silverstein D, von Muhlen
D. Hysterectomy, oophorectomy, and endogenous sex hormone
levels in older women: the Rancho Bernardo Study. J Clin
Endocrinol Metab. 2000;85:645–51.
254J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255
45. Burger HG. Androgen production in women. Fertil Steril. 2002;77 Download full-text
47. Braunstein GD, Sundwall DA, Katz M, et al. Safety and efficacy
of a testosterone patch for the treatment of hypoactive sexual
desire disorder in surgically menopausal women: a randomized,
placebo-controlled trial. Arch Intern Med. 2005;165:1582–9.
48. Buster JE, Kingsberg SA, Aguirre O, et al. Testosterone patch for
low sexual desire in surgically menopausal women: a randomized
trial. Obstet Gynecol. 2005;105:944–52.
49. Shifren JL, Braunstein GD, Simon JA, et al. Transdermal
testosterone treatment in women with impaired sexual function
after oophorectomy. N Engl J Med. 2000;343:682–8.
50. Davis SR, Moreau M, Kroll R, et al. Testosterone for low libido in
postmenopausal women not taking estrogen. N Engl J Med.
51. Krychman ML, Stelling CJ, Carter J, Hudis CA. A case series of
androgen use in breast cancer survivors with sexual dysfunction. J
Sex Med 2007.
52. Barton DL, Wender DB, Sloan JA, et al. Randomized
controlled trial to evaluate transdermal testosterone in female
cancer survivors with decreased libido; North Central Cancer
Treatment Group protocol N02C3. J Natl Cancer Inst.
results. Vaginal testosterone cream vs ESTRING for vaginal
dryness or decreased libido in early stage breast cancer patients
(E-String). 2009 February 23, 2009 [cited; Available from:
pine&rank=4. Pilocarpine in treating vaginal dryness in
patients with breast cancer. 2009 May 21, 2009 [cited;
J Cancer Surviv (2010) 4:247–255255