Sexual Difficulties

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Sexual problems are relatively common among people with cancer and can negatively affect your and your intimate partner’s quality of life.

Sexual Difficulties

“Altered sexuality” is a top concern of people with cancer, yet one that is seldom addressed up front by the oncology team. Many people are embarrassed to bring up the topic with their doctors. However, sexual problems are relatively common among people with cancer and can negatively affect your and your intimate partner’s quality of life. Physical touch and closeness, with or without lovemaking, can be one of the greatest comforts during the difficulties of cancer. No matter your age, your sexuality is important and worthy of your and your healthcare team’s attention.

Sexual problems can arise from several sources:

  • Effects of the cancer and/or its treatment
  • Drugs used to treat symptoms and other conditions
  • Anxiety, depression, worries, stress, fatigue, pain, insomnia, nausea or changes in your appearance
  • Hormonal changes
  • Changes to nerves or sexual organs and tissues.

Of course, fertility is also on the minds of cancer survivors who are still in their reproductive years and must be addressed before starting treatments that can alter fertility.

Talking about your sexual function with your healthcare team even before there is a problem is key, as some potential problems—such as fertility or potential nerve damage—should be considered before treatment. If problems arise, let your healthcare team know sooner rather than later.

Managing Sexual Difficulties

Vaginal moisturizers and vaginal rings supplying low-dose estrogen are used to address sexual discomfort and difficulties for women. Although these are conventional therapies, they may not be included in many conventional treatment programs unless or until a patient expresses a need.

A recent study (not yet published) found that "just about all (99%) of the postmenopausal women who took part in the study scored low on the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI), indicating a high degree of sexual dysfunction, including vulvovaginal dryness and severe dyspareunia (painful intercourse)."2 In a discussion of the study, a recommendation was made to physicians to ask patients about sexual difficulties. However, it is encouraged that you report symptoms and ask for help if your doctor doesn't ask.

In addition to conventional interventions for sexual problems, complementary therapies and lifestyle practices may also help:

Beyond complementary therapies, consider seeing a professional such as a therapist, oncology social worker or oncology navigator to help you explore your stressful situation and identify an approach that is right for you.

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