Navigating sex and body image with a cancer diagnosis

Navigating sex and body image with a cancer diagnosis

This article is supported by our partner, Breast Cancer Trials.

Most women have experienced how difficult it can be to maintain a healthy relationship with their body and sexuality. But for those who have been diagnosed with breast cancer, this can become exacerbated and have a devastating psychological impact which is unfortunately not often spoken about.

Breast cancer is the most commonly diagnosed form of cancer in Australia with 1 in 7 women diagnosed in their lifetime. So how can something that has such a huge impact on people’s personal lives be talked about so little? Professor Kate White and Breast Cancer Trials are here to spark the conversation, offer solutions and dispel myths around sex, body image and breast cancer.

As a Professor of Cancer Nursing from the Cancer Nursing Research Unit at the Sydney Nursing School, Professor White has over 20 years’ experience in caring for people and their families impacted by cancer. As well as leading the development of specialist postgraduate education in cancer and palliative care, she has developed innovative models for supporting those who live in rural and remote regions of Australia.

“Health professionals are comfortable and used to talking about the side effects of chemotherapy, like nausea and vomiting to patients, but many patients do not feel comfortable discussing the other side effects of treatment and how these may impact intimate relationships,” says Professor White.

For some women, talking about sex does not come naturally or easily, much less once they are feeling the effects of chemotherapy and other cancer treatments. “Not surprisingly, when your are struggling with fatigue, you really don’t feel like having sex,” says Professor White. “Many women think that they won’t ever be able to get back to a fulfilling sex life, but that is not true, there is help out there and there are things they can do to improve things.”

As the leader of a number of studies focused on reducing the impact of cancer treatments on sexuality, body image and intimacy, Professor White is passionate about breaking down the stigma around sexual health in relation to cancer, offering solutions to sexual concerns and helping patients break down communication barriers with their intimate partners.

“For some women, they say they don’t feel feminine anymore, so I always start with them having to come up with ten things that they like about themselves. It’s about reminding them about their positives,” says Professor White.

While patients may be aware of how more physical treatments such as a mastectomy or lumpectomy may affect their body image and sensory areas, the mental and physical toll of treatments such as hormone therapy and chemotherapy on libido are discussed less.

On top of the exhaustion many experience while going through these treatments, it is also the scarring, alterations on physical function and changes in libido and vaginal dryness that may cause a significant impact upon a patient’s wellbeing . Additionally, many younger women going through these treatments can experience early menopause quite suddenly, compared to the several years that the menopausal process might naturally take.

This sudden change in a patient’s body can feel quite unexpected, especially if they are not briefed on it by their health professionals or don’t feel confident or are too embarrassed to raise their concerns. But health professionals like Professor White and the team at Breast Cancer Trials are working hard to change this

For Breast Cancer Trials, that means hosting impactful community events like their next virtual Q&A Breast Cancer Trials: Let’s Talk About Sex. Bringing together some of Australia’s leading experts, viewers can send in any questions they have for the panel about breast cancer from libido changes to menopause, fertility issues, body issues, psychological impacts and the research aiming to improve each patient’s quality of life.

As for Professor White’s research, one of her key focuses is supporting women to become more confident in their bodies again. While things may not spring back to the exact same way they were before diagnosis, things don’t have to completely change forever.

“Communication is key and we work with women to help them workshop ways to talk through things with their partners and feel comfortable discussing how they are feeling. Key for both the woman and her partner is understanding why she may feel or experience intimacy differently, and what they could do to ensure it is comfortable and satisfying for them both. Information is often the first key step, this may include topics such as lubricants, vaginal moitsurisers, sex aids and other treatment options like vaginal estrogen, which can be very impactful for some women,” says White.

Professor White suggests thinking about who in your treatment team you feel comfortable talking to and flag in advance that you would like an extra time to talk about this important issue.

“Writing down questions beforehand can also make it less embarrassing for the patient to discuss these things and they will leave the appointment with some practical advice,” she concludes.

The Breast Cancer Trials Q&A Event – Let’s Talk About Sex is free to register and takes place virtually on 30th September 2021 between 5-6.30PM AEST. The panel will be moderated by esteemed journalist Annabel Crabb and features Dr Belinda Kiely, Professor Fran Boyle, Professor Kate White and Ms Rebecca Angus. To register, visit: https://www.breastcancertrials.org.au/qa-registration

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