Many Women With Breast Cancer Struggle With Sexual Health

THURSDAY, Nov. 16, 2023 (HealthDay News) -- For many women with breast cancer, struggles with sexual issues becomes a hidden burden, new research shows.

Because most patients don't feel comfortable talking over these issues with a doctor, many turn to online patient-support forums for advice.

The new study found that three-quarters of breast cancer patients admitted to some form of sexual dysfunction, most often vaginal dryness or pain upon penetration.

However, instead of going to physicians for advice, "women with breast cancer are taking the initiative to fill the gap in their care for sexual symptoms by seeking, innovating and sharing solutions amongst themselves," concluded a team led by Christiana von Hippel.

She's a graduate researcher at Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, in Boston.

In the study, von Hippel's group conducted a survey of 501 adult members of the popular Breastcancer.org online forum community.

Seventy percent said they had remained sexually active at the time they completed the survey. About two-thirds identified as heterosexual, and about two-thirds were partnered.

Forty-seven percent said they'd been very or extremely satisfied with their sex lives prior to cancer treatment, but 44 percent also said they'd experienced a significant worsening of their sex life post-diagnosis. 

Vaginal dryness and/or pain upon penetration were the most common issues cited, and 57% of respondents said they'd never discussed the sexual side effects of cancer treatment with a physician.

Instead, many (35%) said they talked over these issues with peers or looked independently for answers.

Common solutions to "pain reduction" included using coconut oil as a lubricant dUring sex or simply trying other positions, von Hippel's group said.

Masturbation and viewing erotica were common suggestions to help enhance sexual arousal, the survey showed, as was a change in "mindset" when it came to sex, part of what the researchers dubbed "emotional coping."

Not everyone was helped by these approaches, however, and the Boston team said in a university news release that physicians need to do more to initiate conversations with patients over matters of sexual health.

The study was published Nov. 15 in the medical journal PLOS ONE.

More information

Find out more about the side effects of cancer treatment at the American Cancer Society.

SOURCE: PLOS ONE, news release, Nov. 15, 2023

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