Despite Need, Cancer Centers Don't Stock Sex Aids

Pam Harrison

February 15, 2018

The availability of therapeutic sexual aids at major cancer centers in the United States is extremely limited even though sexual dysfunction affects 50% to 90% of adult survivors as a result of treatment, new research suggests.

Of 25 National Cancer Institute (NCI)–designated cancer centers contacted by a Dana-Farber Cancer Institute team, 87% reported having no therapeutic sexual aids on site for men and 72% reported having no sexual aids for women.

"Sexual dysfunction is one of the most significant and distressing problems for the majority of cancer survivors," Sharon Bober, PhD, a psychologist at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute, Boston, Massachusetts, told a presscast in advance of the Cancer Survivorship Symposium (CSS) Advancing Care and Research in Orlando, Florida.

"And we also know cancer survivors are unsure of or unaware of how to get help for these problems," she elaborated.

Efforts to improve availability of sexual aids for survivors would likely promote sexual health rehabilitation and validate this underaddressed aspect of cancer survivorship, Bober and colleagues concluded.

The study findings are a wake-up call, said American Society of Clinical Oncology expert Timothy Gilligan, MD, who moderated the presscast moderator.

"What is really sad to me about this study is that we are not meeting the needs of patients in this area — it doesn't look like we are even coming anywhere close to it," said Gilligan, who is a medical oncologist at the Cleveland Clinic in Ohio.

"The good news is that I think we can easily do better if we just decide we want to," he added.

The Cupboard Is Bare

Researchers identified 25 NCI-designated cancer centers to see what was available in terms of therapeutic sexual aids for cancer survivors.

Of the 25 centers contacted, 23 responded about men and 22 responded about women. Two centers never responded to multiple attempts. Only 1 center of the 25 had an extensive list of products and resources for both men and women. In terms of aids for men, 1 center carried a vacuum device and 2 had penile support rings. Six centers had some aids for women; most commonly reported were personal lubricants, moisturizers, and dilators.

Some centers reported that they told patients to search the Internet to learn about sexual aids or  visit a pharmacy.

"I think the stark absence of all of these products really underscores the cultural taboos around sexual dysfunction, as did the discomfort of some of the staff responding to our calls," Bober said.

"Our hope moving forward is that perhaps we can use some of the centers that did have products as a model because for both patients and providers, having therapeutic aids that are accessible on site allows providers to start conversations with patients when they feel that they have resources to refer to," she elaborated.

"It's important to give patients the message that regaining sexual health is a perfectly valid and life-affirming aspect of regaining overall quality of life," added Bober.

Cleveland Clinic's Gilligan noted that cancer surgery, radiation, hormonal therapy, chemotherapy, and psychological distress can all disrupt patients' sex lives. It can "make it impossible in some cases to have sex the way they used to," he said.

"And patients benefit from help figuring out how to adjust, what changes to make, maybe there are aids to help them, maybe there's a different kind of sex they are going to have to have," Gilligan added.

"So we have to be more diligent as physicians in helping our patients find the best tools and resources to be sexually healthy," he concluded.

The study was funded by the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. Bober reports having received research funding from Apex Neuro. Gilligan reports receiving travel, accommodation, and expenses from WellPoint.

Cancer Survivorship Symposium (CSS) Advancing Care and Research. Abstract 134. To be presented February 17, 2018.

Follow Medscape Oncology on Twitter: @MedscapeOnc

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