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Breast cancer and sexual intimacy issues

While life expectancy for sufferers of breast cancer is on the up, treatments can have certain undesirable effects which may not only disrupt a woman’s life, but also her couple’s intimate sexual relationship.

Sexuality & breast cancer
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Rarely discussed during medical consultations, these intimacy problems are still quite poorly understood and not often taken into consideration. A study by the Paris cancer research institute, Institut Curie, emphasises the extent of these intimacy issues.

The coexistence of sexuality and breast cancer

The undesirable effects of treatment and/or after effects that can last several years can disrupt the sufferer’s sex life. Many women feel devalued, that their femininity, or even identity, has been affected (especially after mastectomy or breast reconstruction surgery). Libido issues and persistent dissatisfaction can arise, affecting a couple’s relationship. Still taboo today, these difficulties are rarely taken into consideration.

Thanks to the support of the Simone Pérèle lingerie company, psycho-oncologists at Institut Curie have carried out a study to identify and quantify these difficulties. A questionnaire about quality of life, intimacy and self-image was provided to 850 women aged between 18 and 70, treated for non-metastatic breast cancer, during a period of 6 months to 5 years after their treatment (except hormone therapy).

Of this total, 53% participated and 43% answered the questionnaire (mainly the younger women). "A substantial number of women surveyed encounter sexual issues (drop in libido, difficulty reaching orgasm, pain) relating to their cancer experience,” explains Anne Brédart, psycho-oncologist at Institut Curie and coordinator of the study.

What’s really happening sexually…

In detail:

  • 29% of patients stated they were not sexually active. Contrary to the general population for which the lack of sexual activity is very often linked to the absence of a partner, the women who responded to this study also spoke of lack of interest in sexual activity, physical problems or fatigue;
  • Of the 71% who attested to regular sexual activity, more than half noted a change: in desire (58%) or ability to reach orgasm (51%);
  • 20% felt an emotional distance within their relationship;
  • 25% noticed a fear of sex in their partner;
  • 65% felt they were not sufficiently informed about the effect of cancer and cancer treatment on sexuality.

To overcome this shortcoming, specialised training, specific consultations and support groups have been put into place for health professionals (doctors, surgeons, nurses, etc.)  at the Institut Curie. "During cancer treatment, the entire equilibrium of a family or couple can be shaken,” explains Dr Sylvie Dolbeault , Head of the Interdisciplinary Department for Support Care at the Institut Curie.

Investigation, consultations for couples and support groups facilitate communication about subjects such as intimacy and sexuality, often left to one side for breast cancer sufferers. These support methods are considerably improving their quality of life.

'Institut Curie’ press release – September 2010. To find out more, if you understand French, you can visit their newly dedicated website – Cancer du Sein. An English version is on the way...

Posted 01.12.2010


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