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Female cancers and sexuality

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We devoted a full chapter in our book, Parting the Curtains, to cancer and sexuality, having witnessed the impact it has on the quality life of the woman, and on her partner when there is one.  Excerpts:

“Facing a cancer diagnosis is never easy, even when the prognosis for recovery is good. Women dealing with cancers that affect their sexual organs, whether directly or indirectly, face a particular set of challenges. This group of cancers is comprised of breast, bladder, and gynecologic cancers, including cervical, endometrial, uterine sarcoma, Fallopian tube, ovarian, vaginal, vulvar, and Gestational Trophoblastic disease (GTD). For the sake of clarity, we will collectively refer to them as “female cancers.”

Being diagnosed with a female cancer forces a woman to confront not only the illness itself, but also the question of who she is now as a woman. Even in cases of early detection and successful treatment, women will often find themselves feeling that their identities have been compromised, as they struggle to adjust to their post-cancer bodies and spirits.

How a woman’s sexual health will be impacted by cancer and/or cancer treatment will be determined by a range of factors, including what type of cancer she has and how advanced it is; her family history and genetics; her general state of physical and emotional health pre-diagnosis; her lifestyle habits; and what kind of support system she has in place. Some cancers will target the reproductive system/genitals directly, while others will exert indirect effects. Either way, we advocate for an approach that takes into account the patient as a whole, not merely her specific body parts.

With medical urgency as their ultimate priority, it is rare that health-care providers address their patients’ emotional needs at the time of diagnosis, leaving them unprepared for the challenges ahead. To bridge this void in patient education and support, we encourage women to seek out a qualified therapist or counselor to help guide them through the emotional upheavals that are so commonly experienced at this time. Our clinical experience with cancer patients has shown us time and time again that it is not enough merely to address a woman’s physical needs, but her psychological needs as well.”

A recent article strengthened our message:  Young Survivors of Breast Cancer Report Sexual Quality of Life Decline After Treatment.  Specifically, “…while half of patients desired to receive follow-up for sexual disturbance during cancer treatment, only 7% received it… A real offset exists between women asking for a sexuality follow-up and medical inclusion. This study confirms to practitioners how approaching sexuality is inseparable of global care.”  (A pdf of the article is available here)

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