Viagra and leukaemia patients

Since April 2018, Viagra has been available “over the counter” in pharmacies and even in some supermarkets. Here we look at what Viagra is and its availability for leukaemia patients.

Before the “little blue pill” was made available without a prescription, men had to visit their GP and have a full examination before being able to access the drug on prescription. For men who didn’t want to speak to their GP, many were accessing the treatment online which came with its own problems including counterfeit tablets.

Now, men can speak to a pharmacist and buy tablets over the counter (without a prescription) costing approximately £20 for four.

What is Viagra?

 Viagra is a treatment for men, over the age of 18, that are experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED). This dysfunction could include difficulties in getting an erection during sex, trouble maintaining an erection. Some men also take this drug because they have a reduced libido.

‘Viagra’ is common name for referring to a tablet that helps to treat erectile dysfunction. The medications actual name is Sildenafil. It was launched in 1998 by drugs company Pfizer and was originally formulated to treat high blood pressure. Since its launch in 1998, it is claimed that 62 million men have tried the drug.

How does Viagra work to treat ED?

 Sildenafil increases blood flow to the penis to help men get or maintain an erection. According to the NHS website, 2/3 men have an improvement when using this treatment.

Men who are taking Sildenafil must take the treatment up to four hours before sex, ideally around an hour before. The medication alone will not cause an erection and a man must be aroused for it to work.

How do you take it?

 Although the common image for this treatment is a little blue pill, Sildenafil can also be supplied in a liquid format.

Can men treated for a blood cancer buy Sildenafil over the counter?

 If you are a man seeking treatment for erectile dysfunction after the diagnosis of a blood cancer, such as a leukaemia or myeloma, then you should speak to your GP or consultant first.

For some men that are diagnosed with a leukaemia, they may be more susceptible to a condition called priapism. Priapism is defined as a long-standing and painful erection that lasts longer than four hours without sexual stimulation and is unrelieved by ejaculation.

Priapism in its own right is a very rare disease, and so for priapism to be caused by leukaemia is extremely uncommon. About two-thirds of adult cases of priapism are caused by the use of agents to treat erectile dysfunction and, in children, the major cause of priapism (67%) is sickle cell anaemia. Generally speaking, leukaemia is only responsible for around 20% of all the cases of priapism, and the incidence in adult leukaemic patients is as little as 1-5%.  Approximately half of these have chronic myeloid leukaemia (CML) as it is far more common to have priapism with chronic leukaemia than acute leukaemia. We’ve written a blog about priapism here.

Talking to your doctor about erectile dysfunction

While sex may not be the first thing on your mind upon diagnosis, it is a key part of many people’s lives and therefore it is important that you feel comfortable in asking for support in this area of your life.

It is natural that some people may find the topic difficult to discuss with a GP or consultant. To have a difficult conversation, we would always recommend writing down the questions if you feel that it may help you.

Things to remember

The world has become increasingly sexualised and you can see the image of “sex” everywhere. This can put unnecessary pressure on people as they feel they have to live up to unrealistic depictions of sex.

Sex does not have to be a performance. Sexuality can encompass many things including being close to your partner and giving and receiving pleasure in ways that makes both of you happy. This does not have to follow any cultural “norms” of expectations of sex.

However, this also means that because you have been a patient, you do not have to accept a life without sex or with a sex life that leaves you unfulfilled. It is important to be fulfilled in every aspect of your life and this includes sexually. Therefore, talk to your GP or hospital team about these subjects to see what can be done to support you.

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