The Oncofertility Consortium advances the reproductive future of cancer patients by maintaining their fertility. However, cancer patients and survivors can also suffer from sexual health problems independent from fertility.
Receiving a cancer diagnosis can significantly affect feelings of sexuality, especially in cancers of the sexual organs, such as the testicles. Cancer treatments such as surgery and chemotherapy can also greatly affect feelings of sexuality. For example, women with breast cancers often must deal with mastectomies and hair loss simultaneously, which can affect feelings of femininity.
Sexual health issues from cancer are not purely psychological. Cancer treatments can cause vaginal dryness that result in painful intercourse. Radiation to the pelvic area can also damage the nerves around the genitals, resulting in decreased stimulation and problems climaxing during sex.
While sexual health issues related to cancer have long been an issue, “Women who are getting help for fertility in the context of cancer, aren’t necessarily getting help for sexuality issues,” states Dr. Stacy Lindau, the director of the Program in Integrative Sexual Medicine (PRISM) at the University of Chicago. The PRISM clinic uses a multidisciplinary and cross-institutional approach to solving sexual health problems of cancer patients. This clinic concentrates on helping female cancer patients with issues because, according to Dr. Lindau, “Until very recently there hasn’t been a place for them to get help with their sexuality.”
Dr. Lindau also studies sexuality as an Associate Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology at the University of Chicago. “I became interested in the topic of sexuality because I felt frustrated that I didn’t have information to give patients,” says Dr. Lindau. In researching the subject, she found that “The prevalence of sexual problems in women who have survived cancer is high, higher than same-aged women who haven’t had cancer and, for a large part, these problems are left untreated.” While men with treatment-induced sexual dysfunction are prescribed Viagra “women with cancer are not treated similarly.”
Thus, it is important for oncologists and other cancer professionals to be aware of both fertility and sexuality issues in cancer patients and survivors.