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Keywords:

  • cancer;
  • focus groups;
  • oncology;
  • qualitative research;
  • quality of life;
  • sexual function;
  • intimacy

Abstract

Objective: Cancer and treatments for cancer affect specific aspects of sexual functioning and intimacy; however, limited qualitative work has been done in diverse cancer populations. As part of an effort to improve measurement of self-reported sexual functioning, we explored the scope and importance of sexual functioning and intimacy to patients across cancer sites and along the continuum of care.

Methods: We conducted 16 diagnosis- and sex-specific focus groups with patients recruited from the Duke University tumor registry and oncology/hematology clinics (N=109). A trained note taker produced field notes summarizing the discussions. An independent auditor verified field notes against written transcripts. The content of the discussions was analyzed for major themes by two independent coders.

Results: Across all cancers, the most commonly discussed cancer- or treatment-related effects on sexual functioning and intimacy were fatigue, treatment-related hair loss, weight gain and organ loss or scarring. Additional barriers were unique to particular diagnoses, such as shortness of breath in lung cancer, gastrointestinal problems in colorectal cancers and incontinence in prostate cancer. Sexual functioning and intimacy were considered important to quality of life. While most effects of cancer were considered negative, many participants identified improvements to intimacy after cancer.

Conclusion: Overall evaluations of satisfaction with sex life did not always correspond to specific aspects of functioning (e.g. erectile dysfunction), presenting a challenge to researchers aiming to measure sexual functioning as an outcome. Health-care providers should not assume that level of sexual impairment determines sexual satisfaction and should explore cancer patients' sexual concerns directly. Copyright © 2010 John Wiley & Sons, Ltd.