In the last 25 years, research has shown stress can be avoided or reduced if women are encouraged to discuss their sexual health. However, healthcare professionals rarely discuss how gynecological cancer can impact women’s sex life. Studies have been conducted to understand why.

One study published in the British Journal of Cancer investigated the behaviors and attitudes of 27 doctors and 16 nurses treating ovarian cancer patients at two hospitals in Leeds, England.

Nurse talks to one of her female ovarian cancer patients fails to address topic of sexual health
A nurse speaking to another healthcare professional about ovarian cancer and sexual functioning.

Healthcare Professionals Treating Ovarian Cancer

The study reported that while 98 percent of healthcare professionals thought that sexual issues should be discussed with patients, only 21 percent actually discussed sexual matters. Only a quarter of doctors and one-fifth of nurses were found to broach the topic with their female patients.

When healthcare professionals were asked what inhibited them from asking, common reasons they cited were an embarrassment and a lack of experience.

Some healthcare providers expressed that they did not feel it was their responsibility to discuss the possibility of sexual problems they may experience due to ovarian cancer. A majority of healthcare professionals (70 percent) thought most women would experience sexual problems. All but one said sexual issues should be discussed with the patient, but only one-in-five thought it was their responsibility to talk to the patient directly.

Almost all of the professionals surveyed said women should be told whether sexual activity is possible, if changes in functioning should be expected, and who to consult for counseling and advice on how to express their sexuality.

Many nurses believed it is their responsibility to advise patients experiencing sexual difficulties, but felt ill-equipped to handle the topic. Oncology nurses rarely start a conversation with patients about sexual function, the study found. Nearly 20 percent said discussing sexual matters is their most-challenging communication problem.

Handling the sensitive issue became much easier after specialist nurses completed a two-day training course. Healthcare professionals also claimed that younger patients made it easier to discuss the topic.

Women with Ovarian Cancer

blood oranges represent lack of communication on sexual health between ovarian cancer patients and healthcare professionals
Photo by Charles Deluvio on Unsplash

Different treatments for gynecological cancer can have varying effects on sexual function, but all women should be informed of the impacts they may encounter as they cope with them.

In addition to studying healthcare professionals, the study also investigated the experiences of women who discussed sexual functioning with their healthcare provider.

Not one woman surveyed for the study received written information about how their sexual functions could be impacted. Two were given verbal information.

Most of the women said a verbal discussion should take place, saying a few minutes of discussion could be all that is needed. Understanding that problems are “normal” and can be addressed reduced anxiety and made women feel more comfortable with their care.

Finding an issue on your own is much worse, they said, and patients should be able to discuss such topics with their healthcare provider.

Having sexual activity during treatment helped one woman cope with the treatment and its side effects. Sexual activity reportedly contributed to feelings of self-esteem, femininity and confidence. Practical advice, such as the provision of lubricants or suggesting alternative sexual positions, can help women to return to a rewarding sex life faster.

Proposed Solutions to Ovarian Cancer

It’s relevant to note that the study found no statistical difference between male and female healthcare professionals. Across the board, this lack of communication may ultimately lead to greater stress among women who do not bring up the topic themselves as questions that might naturally arise are kept at the wayside. This silence may give doctors and nurses the wrong impression as they remain uninformed of pressing concerns.

Sexual activity, however, is evidently not impacted by the lack of dialogue about it. The study found that women are sexually active during chemotherapy.

When addressing solutions, the study did not propose a blanket solution. Instead, it noted that doctors and nurses should include the topic in routine discussions, easing into the conversation with patients.

Researchers noted that the study is based on one city, and therefore may not reflect the attitudes and opinions of healthcare professionals across the U.K.

The study suggests hospitals develop strategies for communication about sexual issues, including who will talk to women about sexual issues and when.

 

Do you think conversations between patients and healthcare professionals on sexual health should be more common? Learn more about ovarian cancer patients and get involved in the discussion.