Ask Breast Cancer Survivors About Sexual Problems


PENTAGON CITY, VA. — Sexual health problems in breast cancer survivors peaked about 12 months after the completion of treatment, and mental health symptoms significantly predicted these problems, according to findings from a study involving 54 female breast cancer survivors.

The findings suggest a need for providers to discuss with breast cancer patients the potential for sexual problems after therapy, and to be alert for mental health symptoms that may increase the risk for these problems, said Beth Fischgrund, a medical student at Northwestern University, Chicago.

To examine which mental health problems were associated with sexual problems and to pinpoint the peak time for these problems, Ms. Fischgrund and her colleagues, surveyed women who had completed breast cancer treatment within 24 months of study enrollment.

After their treatment was finished participants completed two surveys—one at 6–12 months and the other at 18–24 months. Each woman had been in a monogamous relationship since at least a year before her breast cancer diagnosis. The study results were presented in a poster at the annual meeting of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research.

At the time of the first survey, 40% of the women reported moderate to severe sexual problems, but this number increased to 53% at the time of the second survey. Sexual health was assessed using the Sexual Problems Scale, which measured lack of interest in sex, difficulties with arousal and orgasm, lack of pleasure during sex, and pain during sex. These components were combined to calculate a total sexual score.

The findings suggest that reports of sexual problems peaked at about 12 months post treatment, and decreased by 18–24 months. Mental health symptoms were significant predictors of sexual health problems 6 months later, the researchers said. But there were no significant differences in mental health scores between the two time periods. The strongest predictors of sexual problems were interpersonal difficulties and depression.

When asked why sexual problems didn't emerge immediately after treatment, Ms. Fischgrund suggested that during therapy, women with breast cancer are in “survival mode.” At that time, they likely focus on their treatment and on beating the disease, and they don't focus as much on their sexual relationships, she theorized. The study was supported by the Lynn Sage Cancer Research Foundation. The researchers had no financial conflicts to disclose.

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