Any cancer can cause prolonged sexual dysfunction

April 29, 2010

Cancer often leads to significant and long-term disruption in sexual function and intimacy, regardless of the type of cancer or how far along the patient is in the treatment plan, say researchers from Duke Clinical Research Institute, Durham, NC.

Cancer often leads to significant and long-term disruption in sexual function and intimacy, regardless of the type of cancer or how far along the patient is in the treatment plan, say researchers from Duke Clinical Research Institute, Durham, NC.

"We discovered that having cancer-any kind of cancer-can alter a patient’s sex life," said first author Kathryn Flynn, PhD, of Duke Clinical Research Institute.

Dr. Flynn and colleagues found that in some patients, problems persisted long after treatment was over. But they also found that changes in sexual function were not necessarily correlated with a decline in sexual satisfaction.

As part of a National Institutes of Health network called PROMIS (Patient-Reported Outcomes Measurement Information System), a panel of oncologists, sex experts, mental health professionals, and outcomes researchers reached out to patients directly to better understand the nature, scope, and importance of sexual function in their everyday lives. The study included information from 16 focus groups of 109 men and women with different types of cancers in all stages of treatment.

"We found that the most commonly discussed cancer treatment-related impediments to sex were fatigue and weight gain," Dr. Flynn said. "For women, hair loss was another impediment. Other barriers were specific to cancer type: Lung cancer patients, for example, reported that shortness of breath was a problem. Incontinence was an issue for patients with prostate cancers."

Dr. Flynn says that one of the most interesting findings that may improve how sexual function is measured came from participants' revelations about the complex relationships between sexual function/intimacy and satisfaction with their sex life.

"The next step will be to use the information we gleaned from our patients to create new survey questions about sexual function that better represent the experiences that cancer patients have," Dr. Flynn said.

Findings from the study were published online in Psycho-Oncology (March 30, 2010).