Sexual dysfunction is a common side effect for several types of cancer and treatments. Those who receive surgery or radiation for cancer in the pelvic areas (prostate, gynecologic, and rectal) are at greater risk for sexual problems. Many other cancer types and their treatment can cause sexual health issues short and long term.
Chemotherapy may cause hormonal disruption and menopausal symptoms (i.e. vaginal dryness, thinning, shortening, and scarring) may develop. Chemotherapy may also impact your quality of life because it can cause nausea, fatigue, depression, and sleep disruption. Any or all of these symptoms can leave you with little interest in or energy for sexual activities.
Though you may have survived your cancer, life afterwards is not always easy. For many couples, meaningful conversations about sex rarely happen. Our sexual script is how we communicate our needs and sexual desires. After cancer, that former script often doesn’t work. We need new communication techniques to get our sexual relationships back on track.
If you’re single and have no sexual partner, you have unique concerns. How do you bring up the topic? Whom do you tell? How soon into the relationship should you share? It’s common to be concerned about rejection from a new partner, especially at a time in life when you are feeling vulnerable.
As if speaking with sexual partners wasn’t tough enough, there is often a communication gap between patients and their medical providers. Why? The economics of medicine make it difficult for medical professionals. Often medical professionals don’t have extra time during office visits, some have had very little training about sexual side effects, and others may be embarrassed.
Medical providers can screen for sexual health concerns using a variety of methods: surveys, questionnaires, and assessments. They may take sexual histories before treatment begins to identify any baseline issues. I always recommend written surveys or questionnaires as the first screening tools.
Next, it’s best for your healthcare provider to sit down with you and have an uninterrupted conversation. At that time, your medical team can address common issues communicated by other patients having gone through the same type of treatment, address any concerns you or your partner may have, or refer you to another professional.
If your provider hasn’t started the conversation, it’s often difficult to initiate a discussion or ask questions. You may worry about a negative reaction; you may not know what types of questions to ask.
I’ve developed a Patient Questionnaire to help you talk to your medical professional about sexual dysfunction. This list of questions is specifically designed to start the conversation, so you don’t have to suffer in silence anymore.