Sex Is Still a Taboo Subject for Patients With Breast Cancer

Cristina Ferrario

September 09, 2022

An Italian study of women diagnosed with breast cancer reported that around 50% experienced body image disturbance and 20% noted a negative impact on their sex life. And while meeting with a specialist in psycho-oncology was universally viewed as an acceptable option, only one out of four patients considered consulting a sexologist. All these women should be encouraged to face and address issues related to sexuality so that they can truly regain a good quality of life, the study suggests.

The study, which was conducted at the Breast Unit of Santa Maria Goretti Hospital in Latina, Italy, enrolled 141 patients who had undergone breast cancer surgery. Participants were asked to complete a questionnaire that included questions regarding self-image, sexual activity, and sexual satisfaction, and it analyzed these aspects before and after treatment. The participants were then asked whether they felt that they needed to see a sexologist or a specialist in psycho-oncology.

The findings clearly showed a worsening in terms of body image perception. When the women were asked about the relationship they had with their body, femininity, and beauty prior to being diagnosed, 37.4% characterized it as very good and 58.9% as "normal," with ups and downs but nothing that they would term "conflictual." After diagnosis, 48.9% noted that the disease had an impact on their body image with a partial conditioning about their femininity and beauty. However, 7.2% had difficulty when it came to recognizing their own body, and their relationship with femininity also became difficult.

On the topic of sexuality, 71.2% of patients were completely satisfied with their sex life before they were diagnosed with breast cancer, 23.7% were partially satisfied, and 5.0% were unsatisfied. As for their sex life after diagnosis and surgery, 20.1% stated that it continued to be fulfilling and 55.4% said that it had gotten worse; 18.8% reported significant sexual dissatisfaction.

The participants were asked whether consulting a professional would be warranted, whether that would provide useful support for overcoming the difficulties and challenges arising from the disease and the related treatments. In response, 97.1% said they would go to a specialist in psycho-oncology, but only 27.3% would seek help from a sexologist.

"Despite the negative impact on body image and on sexuality, few patients would seek the help of a sexologist; nearly all of the patients, however, would seek the help of a specialist in psycho-oncology. This was very surprising to us," write the authors. They went on to note that they are carrying out another project to understand the reason for this disparity.

In addition, they advised clinicians to encourage communication about sexuality — a topic that is regularly overlooked and not included in discussions with patients, mostly due to cultural barriers. Often, physicians aren't comfortable talking about sexuality, as they don't feel they have the proper training to do so. Patients who are experiencing issues related to sexuality also often have difficulty asking for help. And so, in their conclusion, the authors point out that "collaborating together in the right direction is the basis of change and good communication."

This article was translated from Univadis Italy.


Comments on Medscape are moderated and should be professional in tone and on topic. You must declare any conflicts of interest related to your comments and responses. Please see our Commenting Guide for further information. We reserve the right to remove posts at our sole discretion.