Older Female Cancer Survivors Have Overall Less Sex, but Same Problems as Women Who Haven’t Been Diagnosed

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Many women find that a breast cancer diagnosis and treatments seriously disrupt their sex lives. On the Breastcancer.org Discussion Boards and on our Facebook page, women have told us that many issues related to breast cancer are affecting their ability to desire and have sex, including:

  • the stress and anxiety that come with a diagnosis
  • pain while recovering from surgery
  • physical changes and an altered self-image
  • exhaustion, depression, fatigue, nausea and pain from treatments after surgery
  • hot flashes, night sweats, decreased libido, weight gain, and joint pain side effects from hormonal therapy
  • decreased interest in sex as a side effect of antidepressants

A study suggests that older women who’ve been diagnosed with cancer have less interest in sex and have sex less often than women of the same age who haven’t been diagnosed, but overall have the same sexual problems as undiagnosed women.

The study, “Sexuality among older female cancer survivors,” was presented at the Society of Gynecologic Oncology 2014 Annual Meeting on March 25, 2014.

Because not much research has been done on the sex lives of older women who’ve been diagnosed with cancer, the researchers analyzed information from the National Social Life, Health, and Aging Project database. This study asked questions about sexuality from a representative sample of people aged 57 to 85.

The researchers looked at information from 1,550 women -- 198 of the women were cancer survivors:

  • 76 of the women (38.6%) had been diagnosed with breast cancer
  • 63 of the women (32.4%) had been diagnosed with cancer of the ovaries, uterus, or cervix

The information was collected about 15 years after the women had been diagnosed.

Similar percentages of women in the diagnosed and non-diagnosed groups said their health was excellent, very good, good, fair, and poor.

About 90% of both diagnosed and non-diagnosed women were married. Of the unmarried women:

  • 7% of diagnosed women were living with a significant other
  • 3.5% of non-diagnosed women were living with a significant other

The researchers also looked at how much sex the women were having:

  • 50% of diagnosed women said they had a current sexual partner compared to 62% of non-diagnosed women
  • 45.3% of diagnosed women said they had sex at least once a month compared to 51.1% of non-diagnosed women
  • 33% of diagnosed women said they had had sex within the past year compared to 43.9% of non-diagnosed women

When the researchers looked just at women who said they were sexually active:

  • 30% of the diagnosed women said they had sex once a month or less often compared to 38.2% of the non-diagnosed women
  • 45.2% of diagnosed women said they had sex two to three times a month compared to 28.8% of non-diagnosed women
  • 24.8% of diagnosed women said they had sex one or two times or more per week compared to 33% of non-diagnosed women

Diagnosed and non-diagnosed women had about the same amount of specific sexual activity, including:

  • foreplay
  • vaginal intercourse
  • giving or receiving oral sex
  • masturbation

Similar percentages of diagnosed and non-diagnosed women reported the same common sexual problems, including:

  • vaginal dryness
  • inability to climax
  • performance anxiety
  • lack of pleasure
  • pain during intercourse
  • avoiding sex because of problems

Still, the researchers found that diagnosed women said that some sexual issues became more common as time passed since they were diagnosed, including:

  • lack of interest in sex
  • inability to climax
  • lack of pleasure

It's likely that most women diagnosed with breast cancer think about how their diagnoses and treatments will affect their sexuality, which is understandable. The physical changes and emotional hurdles that go along with diagnosis and treatment can decrease quality of life, including sexuality, for some women. Still, wanting and having satisfying sex during and after breast cancer treatment can be an important part of your overall recovery.

“While this study found that cancer may not affect many aspects of sexuality in older women, it does underscore the importance of sexuality and sexual self-esteem for the cancer survivor,” said Michael Krychman, M.D., executive director of the Southern California Center for Sexual Health and Survivorship Medicine and a member of the Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board. “As we age, our sexual functioning changes and so do the things we like to do with our partners, if a partner is available. Diseases such as cancer and their treatments, as well as the psychosocial changes we experience as a result of the disease, all affect sexuality in one way or another.

“It’s critical to create a secure environment for women so they feel comfortable discussing sexual issues,” he continued. “Many healthcare providers, including oncologists, are uncomfortable discussing sexuality after cancer treatment. Sexuality, intimacy, and sensuality are a vital part of the survivor’s experience and any issues deserve to be addressed. Sexuality is a vital component of the human experience.”

If you’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer and are struggling with sexual concerns or problems, know that you aren’t alone. Talk to a trusted healthcare professional about any issues you have. If you’re uncomfortable talking to any of your current doctors about sex, ask for a referral to a doctor who specializes in sexual medicine. An experienced professional can talk through any issues with you, help you discuss any concerns you have with your partner, and suggest options for getting more help if you need it.

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