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S-E-X and Cancer

I blush just writing the title to this article. Here we are, well into the 21st century, and many, if not most, of us, still find sex and intimacy a topic that isn't easily discussed.

Intimacy problems abound, even among those without cancer, but cancer certainly adds a new dimension to it all. We patients are tired, sick, and terrified. Caregivers are frequently tired and terrified, too. Perhaps when we need the comfort that intimacy brings the most, it is the farthest thing from us.

Patients and doctors shy away from the conversation

I recently listened to a Webinar that you might also like to hear. It was called "Let's Talk about IT: Intimacy after Cancer" and featured a dynamic speaker, Tamika Felder, who was diagnosed with gynecological cancer in 2001. One of Tamika's favorite quotes is, "I survived cancer. I deserve at least a good orgasm."1

Obviously, Tamika doesn't shrink away from talking about sex and intimacy like many of us do. However, the fact is that, based on the research of Jennifer Barsky Reese, Ph.D., the vast majority of both patients and doctors do shy away from discussing this very important topic.2

In her studies, Dr. Reese has found that the overwhelming majority of doctors say that they are not comfortable discussing sexual concerns with patients and if their patients want to have the discussion, they will bring it up. However, despite the fact that 66% of patients interviewed said that it was important that sexual concerns be discussed, the vast majority feel just as uncomfortable as their doctors in broaching the subject. So, it just doesn't get brought up.1,2

Not having those conversations can be detrimental

Sadly, though, not addressing it can be very detrimental. Erin Sullivan Wagner, an anal cancer survivor and founder of, bravely discussed a myriad of problems she and her husband faced when attempting to resume intimacy after her cancer treatments. On a Webinar called "Bring It Up! Talking about Sexuality in Cancer Care," Erin told how intimacy problems after cancer eventually led to the demise of her marriage.

I found it a little interesting and somewhat disconcerting that, based on research by Dr. Reese, only 21% of lung cancer patients said that they had received information from their oncology nurse or doctor about how their cancer and/or cancer treatments might affect their sex lives. By contrast, 33% of breast cancer, 41% of colorectal, and 80% of prostate cancer patients said the topic was discussed.2

How to start a discussion with your doctor

If this is an area in your life that is causing concern, please don't just ignore it. If you are not comfortable bringing the subject up with your doctor face-to-face, consider sending them an email asking for help. You may want to know about medications that can help or request a referral to a specialist.

The Will2Love webinar gave three steps to follow if you want to discuss sex and intimacy problems with your doctor:

  1. Request the time to tackle the problem in advance.
  2. Go into the appointment prepared. Know what questions you want or need to be answered; help your physician help you. Think about where you are in your cancer journey and exactly what problems you have been experiencing or worry you will experience. Be prepared to discuss what you've already tried that didn't work.
  3. Don't leave without a plan. If your oncologist or nurse wasn't able to answer your questions satisfactorily, ask for a referral. Or, maybe the doctor can recommend books or Websites that might be helpful. Just don't leave frustrated that your questions were not answered.

Helpful resources for support

In the meantime, here are some websites that you might find helpful in addressing sexual or intimacy concerns:

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This article represents the opinions, thoughts, and experiences of the author; none of this content has been paid for by any advertiser. The team does not recommend or endorse any products or treatments discussed herein. Learn more about how we maintain editorial integrity here.

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