New Program Helps Patients Recover Sexual Lives Following Cancer Treatment

Besides education and emotional support, the newly launched program offers personalized services including surgical interventions, hormone replacement therapy, and penile low-intensity shockwave therapy, to help patients heal from their cancer treatments.

The launch of a novel program out of the Dignity Health Cancer Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center seeks to help patients with cancer achieve a healthier sexual life both during and after treatment through personalized therapies.1

The program will make sexual health resources available for any patients with cancer, regardless of where they received initial treatment. According to the innovators behind the program, nearly 3 out of 4 patients who undergo therapy consequently experience some degree of a sexual health issue. The design of this program is therefore aimed at helping these patients achieve a better sense of normalcy in this area of their lives.

“Sexual health issues in cancer patients are largely overlooked,” Nicole Afuape, MD, advanced gynecologic surgeon and pelvic pain specialist at Dignity Health Cancer Institute at St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, said in a press release. “However, we are creating a well-rounded clinical program that is focused on identifying and improving these issues to help the overall quality of life for our patients.”2

"In my experience, patients generally share their symptoms and challenges more candidly with their nurse practitioners and nurse navigators, whom they tend to spend more time with and build relationships with," added Marcia Gruber-Page, Vice President of Oncology Services for Dignity Health St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center, in an interview with Oncology Nursing News®. "Patients are often more embarrassed and reluctant to raise this topic with their physician. Our hope is that we can help patients to feel empowered to discuss all of their health needs, including their sexual health, with any member of their care team."

There are several symptoms that may affect patients’ sexual function after they have received cancer treatments, including dyspareunia, penile curvature, low testosterone levels, erectile dysfunction, difficulty controlling bladder or bowels during intercourse, difficulty with premature ejaculation, low libido, struggles with orgasm, and vaginal dryness, tightness, or burning. On top of these physical complications, anxiety or depression surrounding sex, body shame, poor body image, or low self-esteem can also negatively influence patients’ health post-cancer treatments.

Patients who enroll in the program may expect a comprehensive sexual health assessment, followed by a physical exam to evaluate function, as well as potential dysfunction. Following an exam, patients will receive personalized education about sexual health function, dysfunction, and desire and a comprehensive outline of how these concepts might be impacted by chemotherapy, immunotherapy, surgery or radiation therapy. Patients and partners will also receive supportive care from an interdisciplinary team, which includes physical therapists and social workers.

Adverse events associated with sexual health can vary greatly among patients, so services provided will be tailored to each individual based on their assessment findings.

Available services include surgical interventions, including an excision of vaginal cuff, penile implant, pelvic floor muscle injections, and nerve blocks. In addition, hormone replacement and non-hormonal therapy, pelvic floor physical therapy, penile low-intensity shockwave therapy, and penile erection therapy, are available, alongside sexual health education, relaxation, and support.

"For many people, the relationship with their partner—including a healthy sex life—is an important part of maintaining a good quality of life," concluded Gruber-Page. "As cancer providers, we need to address sexual health challenges just as we would offer treatment for any other side-effect of cancer and cancer treatment. Our hope with this program is that it will help patients feel more comfortable telling their care team about changes related to their sexual health, and asking for solutions. Understanding the changes in the body and the mind, and seeking/offering treatment as you would for any side-effect, should be a normal part of what we do.

“Sexual health dysfunction is very common among cancer patients,” added George Kallingal, MD, urologic oncologist at Dignity Health Cancer Institute at St. Joseph’s. “It can have a significant impact on their lives and their loved ones. Our physicians will provide a welcoming, non-judgmental atmosphere for patients and offer treatments to improve intimacy and overall sexual health.”

References

  1. Dignity health cancer institute at St. Joseph's launches sexual health program. Dignity Health. St. Joseph’s Hospital and Medical Center. News release. January 3, 2022. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://www.dignityhealth.org/arizona/locations/stjosephs/about-us/press-center/press-releases/dignity-health-cancer-institute-at-st--joseph-s-launches-sexual-
  2. Sexual health & healing after cancer. Dignity Health. Accessed January 12, 2022. https://dignityhlth.org/31Sdg3R