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Breast Cancer Survivors And A Delicate Topic

February 17, 2011
Written by: , Filed in: Breast Imaging
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Women who survive breast and gynecological cancers often want something from the medical profession but don’t dare ask for it: help with sexual issues.

A survey of 261 such cancer survivors found that only 7 percent had asked for advice or medical help for sexual problems, but 42 percent wanted such care. Said senior study author Stacy Tessler Lindau, MD:

Some women have the courage to raise sexual concerns with their doctor, although repeated studies show they prefer the doctor to initiate the discussion. Physicians will often empathize with a patient’s concerns but struggle with a lack of knowledge about how to help.

Dr. Lindau, associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Chicago Medical Center, was quoted in a medical center news release. The study was recently published online in Cancer and is freely available.

Even after breast or gynecological cancer is successfully treated, sexual problems can linger, including pain, loss of desire, concerns about body changes, and feelings of being unattractive or unfeminine. And yet, as well-documented as those difficulties are, doctors rarely talk with their patients about them, Dr. Lindau said.

“There are few centers in the United States with the expertise to treat sexual problems in women and girls with cancer,” she said.

The researchers surveyed the study subjects and collected their medical records. Participants ranged in age from 21 to 88, with a mean of 55. Younger women were more concerned about sexual issues, but more than 22 percent of the women over 65 also said they wanted medical care for sexual problems.

Dr. Lindau contrasted doctors’ reticence with female patients regarding sexual issues to their openness with men suffering from prostate cancer. The topic of sexual function is routinely addressed throughout the prostate cancer treatment process.

“It is critical that physicians caring for cancer patients know that sexual concerns are often physical,” Dr. Lindau said. “The physical problems associated with cancer treatment can strain relationships, cause worry and stress, and can be very isolating. Many women come to us feeling ashamed, guilty, or alone. They feel like the problem is primarily in their head.”

Openness about delicate topics is always helpful, as is an understanding that patients may feel intimidated or otherwise reluctant about bringing them up. Every health-care provider can help during any point of contact. Even mammography screening—when, after all, anxiety and lack of information are often at a peak—provides an opportunity to empathize and educate.

Related seminar: Breast & Women’s Imaging Seminar (all-new release)

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