Addressing Sexual Health is Important
- When diagnosed with breast cancer, sexual health concerns aren’t usually top priority, but women should be more informed from the start on the potential side affects they may face later on from treatment, according to physicians and survivors.
- There are some cancer treatments that may completely change a person’s approach to sex — but that doesn’t mean survivors can’t have healthy sex lives afterwards.
- In SurvivorNetTV’s series, SN & You: Discussing Sex and Sexuality After Cancer, survivors share how they learned to approach sex in different ways after undergoing cancer treatment.
When women are diagnosed with breast cancer, sexual health concerns aren’t usually their top priority as far as what to ask their doctor—at least at first. Later, it becomes more of a crucial part of the recovery process to address these topics, which is why many argue they should be discussed from the start.Read More
However, once a patient starts going through the treatment process and hopefully, into recovery, now what? Those questions that weren’t addressed at first can sneak up on survivors as sexual health concerns seem to pop up out of nowhere.
As a triple-negative breast cancer survivor, those questions certainly never crossed my mind. Additionally, I had no idea that treatment would affect my fertility.
Thankfully, my doctors made me aware that there was a high chance I would not be able to get pregnant, especially since I had just turned 40. So I was faced with the decision of having to freeze my eggs immediately before starting chemotherapy treatment, which I chose to do.
Survivors and Sexual Health
A study conducted earlier this year found that out of half of the patients reporting “cancer-related sexual health concerns,” more than two-third’s of them say they were never given adequate information about the potential side effects from treatment.
This study also found that adequate training for clinicians on these topics were lacking, even though cancer treatment (surgery, chemotherapy, radiation, hormone therapy) can severely affect body image and sexual health. These issues can lead to long-term emotional health issues such as anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem.
Therefore, the overall assessment in this area is that “screening tools are essential in identifying post-gynecologic and breast cancer treatment sexual concerns.”
Additionally, the study found that “over 65% of participants prefer written material on the topic of sexual health” followed by with their medical doctor.
If these issues are not addressed, the study argues that patients may not know that there may be ways to manage these symptoms and as a result, suffer from these difficult issues chronically.
SurvivorNet spoke with Dr. Yuan Yuan, breast medical oncologist and medical director for breast cancer research at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center, and asked how they tackle the topic of sexual health with breast cancer patients.
“I think it’s important,” she says on the overall subject, but explains that during the visit with a provider, you only have so much time.
“You’re focused on chemo side effects, labs, imaging, you know, a lot of things … it’s taken up all the time,” Dr. Yuan Yuan explains. “So sex has become being pushed to the corner.”
Dr. Yuan Yuan acknowledges that the issue often arises during survivorship. “But as far as vaginal dryness, atrophy, we often would refer to gynecology.”
She says that a lot of these discussions do happen in those clinics, but again, not every place has that kind of clinic. “And then every practice is slightly different as well, but it is important.”
Ultimately, Dr. Yuan Yuan says that there should be a calling for more gynecologists in that area, doctors who are specifically trained in sexual health. Therefore, care should be more comprehensive.
Communicating with Your Care Team
When I have brought up other health issues with my oncologists, they have explained to me that their chief concern and goal is to make sure they’re monitoring me for a recurrence. During follow-ups, they do take note of any concerning issues, then will give advice or a referral to get it checked elsewhere, as they have to focus their resources on treating people with active disease.
On the flip side, I do understand why a universal screening method is essential. Overall, I happen to be communicative and not very shy, therefore I have no problem addressing difficult topics, but many are not as comfortable. Therefore, women need a bit more help in screening potential issues that could be plaguing them behind closed doors.
Sexual health is huge. Whether it’s sex with a partner or self-love, we all deserve to feel good about ourselves. And if there is a problem prohibiting us from feeling good, whether it’s a physical or emotional side effect, those issues need to be addressed.
These issues can be affecting partnerships and destroying relationships, which also affects children, so it’s absolutely something that needs to be taken more seriously, considering the potential domino effect of disaster that may result.
Specific Questions to Ask Your Doctor
- What are the potential physical and mental side effects of my cancer treatment?
- What can I do if I am feeling self conscious or frustrated about changes to my body?
- What sort of hormonal changes will I go through?
- Will I be able to get pregnant after cancer treatment?
- What can I do now to protect my fertility?
- What kind of products can I use to help improve my sex life?
- Is there anything my partner should be aware of before we are intimate?
Body Positivity After Cancer
In recent years, there has been a major movement praising all shapes, colors, and sizes of women’s bodies. This is particularly important for cancer survivors as well, especially breast cancer survivors who have had one or both of their breasts removed.
31-year-old Meghan Koziel, a breast cancer survivor, is a big believer of owning your confidence and sexuality, and wants to help women improve their sex lives after cancer.
“We are sexual beings,” Meghan tells SurvivorNet. “And just because we had cancer doesn’t mean that we can’t still be just as beautiful, just as fun. And just as sexy in the bedroom.”
Beauty can be found in all forms. No one is perfect, and we need to learn to be proud of our bodies, during and after cancer.
“Don’t be afraid to ask your doctor for suggestions, try different products, try different things that can help you have fun in the bedroom,” she says. “Don’t be afraid of different lubricants. Don’t be afraid of using CBD. Don’t be afraid of using toys. Women need to know that regaining your sexual confidence is a struggle. It’s not an overnight thing.”