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Intimacy and Cancer

March 2007 - A study aimed at improving support services has investigated the lives of people caring for a partner with cancer and how they negotiate issues surrounding sexuality and intimacy.

The study by Dr Emilee Gilbert, from the Gender, Culture and Health Research Unit in the School of Psychology at the University of Western Sydney was based on questionnaires completed by 131 cancer carers (88 women; 43 men) and in-depth interviews conducted with 20 carers.

  • Over three-quarters (80 per cent) responded that the diagnosis of cancer had had a detrimental impact on their sexual relationship with their partner
  • 86 per cent of male and 76 per cent of female respondents said that cancer had impacted on their sexuality

The survey identified lack of communication about sex and intimacy, both between partners and with health care professionals, as a major issue. Younger female participants raised concerns such as whether to start a family, whether their partner would survive to help raise any children, or whether they could get pregnant.

Emilee Gilbert said:

"For some couples, the person with cancer was hesitant to discuss issues relating to sexuality and carers generally felt they did not want to put further stress on the partner with cancer by raising the topic.

"There was also a perception among some of the older couples in the study that sex was a taboo subject in the context of cancer."

Respondents reported an excellent experience when issues of intimacy and sexuality were raised by health care professionals and questions discussed without being rushed. Service providers who failed to raise the topic, possibly fearing being perceived as intrusive or disrespectful, made it difficult for carers to feel they could legitimately discuss their feelings. Factors such as gender, age and culture also may inhibit both sides.

The study concludes that there is a need for support to be offered to people with cancer and their carers to facilitate communication about sexuality.

Emilee Gilbert commented:

"Part of the unwillingness to raise the topics of sex and intimacy probably stems from not being given the license to talk about it. Those feelings left them feeling angry, upset and resentful of health care professionals. In many cases, because health professionals did not bring the subject up, carers did not feel they could bring it up. If it was discussed, it was only touched on or it was raised at an inappropriate time such as when the diagnosis was first given."

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