Sexual activity remains a taboo subject among cancer patients. “Alterations in sexual function are a frequent problem. However, they rarely come up in the consultation. Thanks to improved treatments, our patients live longer and better, and alterations in sexual function are an issue that directly affects their quality of life, both physically and mentally,» explains Dr. Vanessa Ospina, a specialist in Internal Medicine and Medical Oncology at the Carlos Ardila Lülle Cancer Institute (Colombia) and associate researcher of the European research project CLARIFY, coordinated by the Madrid Health Service (SERMAS) and led by Puerta de Hierro-Majadahonda Hospital.
Quality of life questionnaires
To address this issue an study of the alterations in sexual function in long cancer survivors based on quality of life questionnaires was carried out within CLARIFY. In total, more than 380 patients with breast, lung and lymphoma cancer with an average age of 56 years participated in the study. Data focused on the type and frequency of sexual dysfunctions and the results were presented at the last congress of the Spanish Society of Medical Oncology (SEOM).
“Demographic and clinical variables and sexual function measurements were collected from October 2020 to May 2022. Two validated sexual function assessment questionnaires were used. The questionnaires were delivered to patients physically or electronically, so that they could answer them at any time and later submit them anonymously”, explains Ospina.
Most patients were married (72%), 14% were separated and divorced.
Sexual alterations in breast cancer patients
Among the study´s most outstanding results, a high frequency of altered sexual function was detected in surviving patients: up to 36% in the case of women with breast cancer, 15% in lung cancer patients, and 10% in lymphoma long survivors. Highly variable results in the degree of sexual satisfaction and the frequency of sexual activity were also reported depending on the patient´s sex and type of neoplasm.
Regarding the frequency of sexual activity, a large difference between men and women was observed. While 69% of men had been sexually active in the last 4 weeks, only 31% of women reported having any sexual activity in the same period. In general, women, especially those with breast cancer, showed a greater tendency to present altered sexual function, a finding that confirms previous studies.
For Dr. Ospina, in light of these results, «it is highly important to raise awareness and educate about this condition and promote the active evaluation of the presence of alterations in sexual function by specialists.» Dr. Blanca Cantos, a specialist in breast cancer at the Puerta de Hierro-Majadahonda Hospital and a CLARIFY researcher, adds, «support by specific multidisciplinary support groups during clinical follow-up is also essential to improve the quality of life of this growing cancer population”.
Following these conclusions, Dr. María Torrente, coordinator of the CLARIFY project, explains that «the evaluation of these alterations has helped us to incorporate them into clinical practice and develop both personalized and group-level interventions responding to the patients´ needs.» An example of this are the sexuality workshops delivered by psycho-oncologists from GEPAC (Spanish Group of Cancer Patients) in partnership with specialists from the Puerta de Hierro-Majadahonda Hospital.