Story by: Sara Thompson on November 18, 2020
Changes in sexual health may not be top of mind when you’ve been diagnosed with cancer, but it might be more important than you expect. It’s important to talk to your health care providers about sexual health and cancer.
Depending on the treatment you are given, sexual side effects range from mildly annoying to downright debilitating. For instance, hormone-blocking medications can cause vaginal dryness, which can lead to painful sex or lowered sex drive. Patients who have mastectomy (breast removal) may no longer have feeling in the chest area. Changes in body image affect sexual well-being. Young women may face infertility or early menopause with cancer treatments.
“This topic isn’t discussed enough,” said Laila S. Agrawal, M.D., medical oncologist with Norton Cancer Institute. “But sexual health affects your quality of life, and there are ways to address those issues.”
Patients tend to feel their cancer diagnosis sets them apart from others. They may feel like their issues are theirs alone, but they’re not.
“Sexual health concerns are common issues for cancer survivors,” Dr. Agrawal said. “A Livestrong survey in 2010 listed this as the third most important issue for cancer survivors.”
Norton Cancer Institute’s Behavioral Oncology Program offers care for the emotional and mental health needs of patients and their families.
Many times, patients also feel they shouldn’t discuss their sexual issues with their doctor. Patients may feel uncomfortable asking, or they may be afraid to make their doctors uncomfortable. They may believe sexual health issues are not as “important” as their physical cancer treatments and therefore may be reluctant to bring it up with the doctor.
Dr. Agrawal has some ideas to help you open the lines of communication with your doctor, care team and partner.
“It is understandable that this may a sensitive topic to discuss with your doctor,” she said. “Just know that this is a very common issue among cancer survivors, and medical treatments are available that may help.”
It may help to write down your questions before you see your doctor. Here are some questions to get you started.
“In the near future, we hope to open a sexual health clinic at Norton Healthcare for a more comprehensive assessment and treatment program,” Dr. Agrawal said. “The behavioral oncology program can assist with issues that affect sexual functioning, including body image, libido, depression, anxiety and relationship concerns. Some conditions must be checked and treated by a gynecologist.”
Many sexual health concerns after cancer are very common and can be treated. Just like many things are not the same after a cancer diagnosis, your sex life may not be the same either. Having patience with yourself, having honest communication with your partner and looking at intimacy in new and creative ways can help restore a healthy sex life.
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