Cancer Therapy Affects Sexual Health in Most Patients

Roxanne Nelson, RN, BSN

October 28, 2020

Sexual dysfunction is a common treatment-related problem observed across numerous cancer diagnoses, and a new survey finds that 87% of cancer survivors have had such problems.

However, most of them also reported that their oncologist had not formally discussed the topic, and female patients were particularly unlikely to be asked about sexual dysfunction.

"The main takeaway from our study is that sexual side effects following treatment are very common," said lead author James Taylor, MD, MPH, chief resident in radiation oncology at the Sidney Kimmel Cancer Center at Thomas Jefferson University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

"Nearly 9 in 10 patients reported some change after cancer treatment that negatively affected their sexual health," he said.

Taylor was speaking at the American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) Annual Meeting, held virtually this year because of the pandemic.

"Negative effects on sexual health after cancer treatment are unfortunately very common," he said. "This is not just patients treated with radiation but this includes chemotherapy, hormonal therapy, surgery, and other treatment modalities."

Potential issues include physical complications such as erectile dysfunction with prostate cancer treatment or vaginal dryness with gynecological cancer treatment. One recent study found that one third of men who had undergone treatment for prostate cancer reported that a subsequent lack of sexual function has had the greatest impact on their quality of life. Another study reported that nearly all patients with breast cancer taking endocrine therapy experience a high degree of sexual dysfunction, including vulvovaginal dryness and severe dyspareunia.

Not Discussed, Not Warned

Taylor and colleagues developed a questionnaire with input from radiation oncologists, medical oncologists, and surgeons, which consisted of more than 25 questions and was specifically targeted at cancer survivors.

A total of 405 adults completed the electronic survey about their experiences with sexual side effects after cancer treatment (391 responses were eligible for analysis). Most of the respondents were women (81%), and the most common cancer types were breast (67%), prostate (16%), and endometrial (6%). Treatments included chemotherapy (78%), radiation therapy (54%), and hormone therapy (47%).

"The questionnaires were distributed at Thomas Jefferson and throughout social media," said Taylor. "The responses from social media are important because it shows a broad representation of patients who are treated in multiple clinics across the United States."

Most of the survivors who responded (n = 337, 87%) stated cancer treatment had impacted sexual function or desire, with 53.8% reporting body image distortion, 73.4% with dyspareunia, and 42.3% unable to achieve orgasm.

Only about one quarter (27.9%) said that they had been formally asked about their sexual health by their clinician.

"Only about 40% said that they have been preemptively warned that their sexual health may be affected by treatment," said Taylor.

Women were far less likely to be asked about their sexual health by their provider. The survey showed that male respondents were twice as likely to say they had been asked about sexual health and counseled about the potential toxicity (53% vs 22%; P < .001), and a substantially higher percentage of men reported receiving a formal assessment tool such as a survey (32% vs 5%; P = .001) compared with female respondents.

Taylor noted that the survey demonstrated several things. "One is that sexual toxicity is exceedingly common, and number two, it identified a gender disparity," he said. "But number 3, and I think that this is an important aspect of our study, is that the majority of respondents felt that they would like a standard questionnaire to initiate and guide a discussion on sexual health with their provider."

The reason that the last key aspect is very important, he emphasized, is that "we know metrics and questionnaires already exist, so this gives us an actionable intervention that we can distribute and help mitigate some of these disparities."

Importance of Being Holistic

The results of the survey "highlight the importance of being holistic in our approach to patient survivorship," commented Karen Winkfield, MD, PhD, executive director of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, Nashville, Tennessee. "We need to ask patients about all parts of their well-being, including sexual health," Winkfield said. "Body dysmorphism can impact anyone, but especially patients who have had surgery or radiation," she said, while chemotherapy can impact energy and libido and have other toxicities that impact sexual health.

"I encourage all oncologists to ask patients about their sexual health, and a standardized form that can be used across all sites will make this much easier," Winkfield commented. "We owe it to our patients to treat them holistically."

The authors have reported no relevant financial relationships.

American Society for Radiation Oncology (ASTRO) Annual Meeting. Abstract 1042. Presented October 26, 2020.

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