Sexuality for the Woman With Cancer

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Professional help

The first step in finding help for a sexual problem is to discuss it with your doctor. Many health care professionals, including some doctors, have little training in sexual issues. They may not feel comfortable even talking about sex. Many doctors also fail to mention the sexual side effects of cancer and medical treatments. If they do talk about it, they may give you such a sketchy picture that you may think that your sex life is over. If your cancer specialist can’t help you, we suggest you ask your family doctor or another member of your health care team. If your doctors are not able to help you, they should be able and willing to refer you for help. There are many different programs and specialists who can help you find the answers you need.

Sexual rehabilitation programs in cancer centers

A center that specializes in treating cancer may have experts on staff who can assess and treat sexual problems. But these specialists may only see patients who are being treated for cancer at their hospital. If you are being treated at a cancer center, check to see what programs are offered.

Sexual medicine clinics or sexual health clinics

In recent years, medical clinics and even private practice groups have begun treating sexual problems and/or promoting sexual health. Such clinics provide psychological and medical exams through many different types of health care providers. Some clinics require both sexual partners to take part in the evaluation, though you may be seen alone if you’re not in a committed relationship. You can try calling a nearby medical school and asking if they have a sexual medicine clinic or sexual health program.

Sex therapists

Sex therapy is a brief type of psychotherapy or counseling (up to 10 to 20 sessions) focused on solving a sexual problem. Sex therapists believe that lovemaking skills are learned and that bad habits can be corrected by learning different sexual techniques. In between meetings with the therapist, a couple (or sometimes just one partner) is given homework assignments. The homework includes exercises to help you communicate and enjoy touching more. It also reduces anxiety that often interferes with good sex.

Sex therapists may practice in a clinic or alone. Most states have no laws regulating the title “sex therapist,” so people with no formal training can call themselves sex therapists. But a sex therapist should be a mental health professional (psychiatrist, social worker, or psychologist) with special training in treating sexual problems with sex therapy. Some counselors may provide sexual counseling if a licensed professional supervises them.

It’s not always easy to find a well-trained sex therapist. It’s even harder if you live far from a city. A professional society, such as the American Association of Sex Educators, Counselors, and Therapists (AASECT), can give you information about their members who have special training in sex therapy. You can also get a listing of professionals in your area by contacting your state’s psychological association, a chapter office for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), or a state association for licensed marriage and family therapists. (See the “To learn more” section for contact information.)

Other kinds of counseling

Sex therapy is not the only kind of counseling that can be helpful to a person with cancer. Psychotherapy can help you feel better about the changes in your body, help you and your partner communicate more clearly, and give you skills to better cope with cancer and cancer treatment. Finding a well-qualified mental health professional is important.

A psychiatrist has a medical degree with a specialty in psychiatry. They should also be certified by the American Board of Psychiatry and Neurology.

Most psychologists practicing alone have a doctorate in psychology (PsyD) or in education (EdD). Psychologists do not have medical degrees and don’t write prescriptions. Psychologists with a master’s degree are most often supervised by one with a doctorate. In most states, a psychologist must be licensed. Those who practice usually have their degree in clinical or counseling psychology.

Social workers usually have a master’s degree in social work (MSW). Some states have a category for licensed psychotherapists called marriage and family counselors. They usually have a master’s degree in psychology or a related field, plus training in counseling.

Psychiatric clinical nurse specialists or psychiatric nurse practitioners have a master’s degree in psychiatric nursing. They are licensed professionally, but their ability to prescribe medicines varies from state to state.

The cost of counseling varies with the professional’s training. One way to get quality treatment for a lower fee is to find a nearby medical school with a psychiatry clinic. You can also go to a university that trains clinical psychologists and has a psychology clinic. You will be seen by a student in advanced training, but they will be supervised by a senior professional.

Other medical specialists

A woman with sexual problems should be examined by a gynecologist. This is a medical doctor trained in diseases of the female genitals and reproductive organs. A thorough and gentle pelvic exam is very important when a woman has pain during intercourse.

When the most likely cause of a sexual problem is a hormone imbalance, an endocrinologist should be consulted. Endocrinologists are experts in the complex cycles and systems that control hormone levels. Usually your primary doctor is best able to decide whether the special knowledge of an endocrinologist is needed to solve your problem.

What to avoid

Men and women often seek help for a sexual problem by going to someone who’s not really a health care professional. Sexual problems are common and upsetting, and many people will try unproven remedies or cures. Although there’s no evidence that any of the following can cure a sexual problem, they are often said to be cures: potency pills (such as “poppers” or “Spanish fly”), oysters, “exercisers” that fit inside a woman’s vagina, hypnotism by someone not trained as a mental health professional, or visits to an independent “sexual surrogate.” These treatments do not work and can sometimes be harmful.


Last Medical Review: 08/29/2013
Last Revised: 08/29/2013