I recently read a review of research published in Maturitas an international science journal dedicated to research about midlife health and beyond. The article focused on sexuality after breast cancer.
Summarizing the research findings in a sentence …women get little support to help them maintain intimacy while going through treatment or restoring intimacy after active treatment is over.
Sexuality remains the taboo subject.
The review, which analyzes studies from 1998 to 2010, concluded that the sexual needs of women with breast cancer are rarely addressed in a clinical setting. The reasons given vary; health professionals either don’t know how to, or don’t feel comfortable, initiating discussions, or worse, assume post-menopausal women are no longer concerned about their sexuality as they are no longer sexually active.
As a navigator meeting with women in treatment for breast cancer, I know the fear and anxiety so many women have about their sexuality. Feeling less a woman because of the changes in body image and fatigued from treatment many women felt less than adequate as lovers. Some had experienced the rejection of husbands and partners. Still others could not bring themselves to talk with their husbands and partners about what they were feeling and what they needed in order to be intimate. Most of the women were too uncomfortable to broach the subject with their physicians.
Looking back on my own two experiences with breast cancer, I don’t remember the subject ever being brought up by any member of my treatment team after either cancer. I didn’t bring it up either, not out of embarrassment, but other things like understanding findings, follow-up care, insurance coverage, and employment issues took precedence.
While we breast cancer survivors are living longer than ever before, our quality of life is often compromised by anxiety, depression and sexual dysfunction. Our clinicians encourage us to seek help for anxiety and depression, but sexual dysfunction is often a major issue that never gets addressed. Yet, sexual dysfunction and its impact on quality of life is often at the root of survivor anxiety and depression.