Tips on Sexual Side Effects of Cancer Treatments

As we discuss in our book and many of our blogs, many people and especially health care professionals are squeamish about discussing sexual pain.  In an enlightening piece by Suleika Jaouad, Life, Interrupted: Crazy, Unsexy Cancer Tips in the February 14th edition of the New York Times, she so eloquently describes cancer patients' struggle with sexual side effects of cancer treatment. Ms. Jaouad has leukemia and she and so many others are frustrated by the lack of concern and information about this very real problem. Ms. Jaouad writes:

     "After my diagnosis at age 22 with leukemia, the second piece of news I
     learned was that I would likely be infertile as a result of chemotherapy. It was
     a one-two punch that was my first indication that issues of cancer and
     sexual health are inextricably tied. But to my surprise, sex is not at the
     center of the conversation in the oncology unit — far from it. No one has ever
     broached the topic of sex and cancer during my diagnosis and treatment. Not
     doctors, not nurses. On the rare occasions I initiated the conversation myself,
     talking about sex and cancer felt like a shameful secret. I felt embarrassed
     about the changes taking place in my body after chemotherapy treatment
     began — changes that for me included hot flashes, infertility and early
     menopause. Today, at age 24, when my peers are dating, marrying and having
     children of their own, my cancer treatments are causing internal and external
     changes in my body that leave me feeling confused, vulnerable, frustrated —
     and verifiably unsexy." 

She also points out that most oncologists are so concerned with saving patients' lives, that sexual problems are not even on the spectrum of discussion. She was lucky and found some organizations that do provide information including  the American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors and Therapists; the Society for Sex Therapy and Research; and the Association of Oncology Social Workers, all professional organizations that can help connect cancer patients to professionals trained in working with sexual health issues and the emotional and physical concerns related to a cancer diagnosis.

And the great news is that some of the top oncologists and sexual medicine experts in North America have banded together to form THE SCIENTIFIC NETWORK ON FEMALE SEXUAL HEALTH AND CANCER. Our mission is to accelerate research in the field of sexual problems after cancer (which has been sadly lacking), educate medical professionals, establish guidelines for care, and advocate for increased recognition and informed policy on this huge problem. With the major advances in treating and curing cancer now, there are 7 million of us women who may need this information and care!

Also please read tips from Dr. Sharon Bober, another member of the NETWORK, in this helpful article.

No matter what your diagnosis is, including cancer, auto-immune diseases such as lupus and connective tissue disease, multiple sclerosis, chronic fatigue syndrome and many others, sexual problems can be a prominent and disabling issue. And sexual difficulties are exacerbated by the "shame factor" and lack of information about the topic.  Thank you Ms. Jaouad for so bravely and articulately addressing this issue that affects millions of women. We urge all women with cancer or other life-altering medical conditions to NOT DISMISS or MINIMIZE your sexual concerns -- this will lead to increased anxiety, depression, intimacy issues with partners and potential partners, and a distorted self image.  No matter what challenge you are facing, sexuality and feeling sexy and sensual are vital to your emotional and physical  health. The good news is that although cancer treatments and other medical conditions can cause sexual challenges, there are effective medical treatments to ease or treat the problem. And even the act of openly addressing this issue is a first step in treating and healing the sexual aspects of medical conditions. It is unfortunate that you need to expend so much effort and energy in self-advocacy and education when you are already exhausted from dealing with so many medical and emotional aspects of your condition. But the medical community is light years behind in taking an integrative approach to health care and it becomes all of our jobs to enlighten and educate. 


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