Women’s Cancers: Clinicians Research, Advise on Sexual Dysfunction

March 29, 2024 9:00 am

The following article is provided by The Clearity Foundation to support women with ovarian cancer and their families. Learn more about The Clearity Foundation and the services we provide directly to women as they make treatment decisions and navigate emotional impacts of their diagnosis.

By Heidi Splete

Many women with cancer want advice for managing sexual function issues, and clinicians are tuning in, new studies suggest.

Decreased sexual function is a side effect of many types of cancer, notably uterine, cervical, ovarian, and breast cancer, that often goes unaddressed, according to the authors of several studies presented at the Society of Gynecologic Oncology (SGO)’s Annual Meeting on Women’s Cancer.

Patients want to talk about sex, but not necessarily at the start of their diagnosis or treatment, suggest the findings of a study presented at the meeting. Jesse T. Brewer of Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City and colleagues enrolled 63 patients who underwent surgery with documented hereditary breast cancer, ovarian cancer, or Lynch syndrome in a cross-sectional survey.

Overall, 86% said that sexuality and intimacy were very or somewhat important, and 78% said that the healthcare team addressing the issue was very or somewhat important, the researchers found. However, only 40% of the respondents said that they wanted to discuss sexuality at the time of diagnosis because the idea was too overwhelming.

Oncologists are more aware of sexual side effects and the potential for sexual issues that persist long after treatment, but many patients may not have opportunities to talk about sexual concerns, said Don S. Dizon, MD, an oncologist specializing in women’s cancers at Brown University, Providence, Rhode Island, in an interview.

“It is important that we [oncologists] be the ones to open the door to these conversations; people with cancer will not bring it up spontaneously, for fear of making their provider uncomfortable, especially if they’ve never been asked about it before,” Dr. Dizon said in an interview.

He advised clinicians to find a network within their health systems so they can refer patients to specialized services, such as sex therapy, couples counseling, pelvic rehabilitation, or menopausal experts as needed.

In another study presented at the meeting, Naaman Mehta, MD, of NYU Langone Health, and colleagues reviewed data from 166 healthcare providers who completed a 23-item survey about evaluating and managing sexual health concerns of their patients. Most of the respondents were gynecologic oncologists (93.4%), but one radiation oncologist and 10 other healthcare providers also completed the survey.

Overall, approximately 60% of the respondents routinely asked about the sexual health concerns of their patients, and 98% of these said they believed that sexual health discussions should be held with a gynecologic oncologist. Just over half (54%) also said that the patient should be the one to initiate a discussion of sexual health concerns.

Female providers were significantly more likely to discuss sexual health with patients, compared with male providers, after controlling for the hospital setting and training level, the researchers noted (odds ratio, 1.4;P < .01).

The results suggest a need for more ways to integrate sexual health screening into gynecologic oncologic clinics, the researchers concluded.

The provider survey findings are similar to the results of a survey conducted by Dr. Dizon and colleagues in 2007. In that study, less than half of respondents took a sexual history, but 80% felt there was insufficient time to explore sexual issues.

“It is critical to understand that people with cancer do not expect their oncologists to be sexual health experts, but as with all other side effects caused by treatment and the diagnosis, we can be the ones who recognize it,” Dr. Dizon noted, in an interview.

Published by: MDedge

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