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Female Cancer Survivors and Sexual Healthcare

Apr 21, 2011

Over 40% of breast and gynecologic cancer survivors want sexual healthcare, but only 7% talk to their physicians about it, according to a recent study published in the journal Cancer.

University of Chicago researchers surveyed 261 breast and gynecologic cancer patients between the ages of 21 and 88 about their interest in receiving sexual healthcare. The mean age of the women was 55 years.

The researchers found that women who had been out of treatment for a year or more were more likely to want sexual healthcare than women who were currently in treatment.

While younger cancer survivors tended to be more interested in sexual healthcare, older women still had concerns. In fact, 22% of women over age 65 said they wanted help for sexual issues.

Breast and gynecological cancer survivors often face a number of sexual problems, such as pain, vaginal dryness, and desire, arousal, and orgasm issues. However, in spite of any problems, many female cancer survivors remain sexually active.

The authors said there is an “unmet need” for sexual healthcare among this group. Citing previous research, they noted that some doctors don’t address the subject – or don’t address it thoroughly – because they don’t have the time or the expertise. Some lacked sexual health resources.

The authors also cited the results of a 2002 British study, in which 98% of healthcare providers surveyed thought that sexual issues should be discussed with patients, but only 21% of them actually had these conversations.

In contrast, the authors pointed out that physicians tend to discuss sexual issues with prostate cancer patients throughout the treatment process.

Not all women are comfortable asking for help with sexual problems. The authors suggest ways that healthcare providers can learn more about their patients’ wants and needs.

First, physicians can develop forms or questionnaires for patients to complete when they come in for office visits. The forms can be simple, asking patients to circle answers or mark check boxes.

Doctors can also ask questions during face-to-face office visits, though they should be careful not to make assumptions. For example, women may be interested in sexual healthcare regardless of their marital status or stage of cancer.

Even if sexual healthcare services aren’t readily available in the patient’s local area, doctors can still show empathy and help patients find helpful resources. “…Asking about this aspect of a patient’s life signifies the physician’s concern for the patient’s and her partner’s overall well being and openly acknowledges that cancers of the genital organs – and their treatment – often have an impact on women’s sexual life and functioning,” the authors said.