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Love - And Sex - Often Continue When Breast Cancer Returns

Armen Hareyan's picture

Breast cancer survivors whose disease has returned can maintain loving relationships and fulfilling sexual lives.

The findings were published July 20 in the Journal of Clinical Oncology.

"This study is the first to comprehensively evaluate sexual satisfaction and sexual activity patterns of patients following a first recurrence of breast cancer," says Dr. Charles L. Shapiro, director of breast medical oncology at the James Cancer Hospital and Solove Research Institute at Ohio State University Medical Center.

"We found that pretty much over the 12 months of observation that relationship satisfaction and sexual satisfaction were stable," says Shapiro, who collaborated on the study with Barbara L. Andersen. "This speaks to the resiliency of these women."

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How to maintain one's sexual life following cancer is a concern for many patients, says Andersen, a professor of psychology who has studied the impact of cancer on women's sexuality for more than 25 years. She is principal investigator of the Stress and Immunity Breast Cancer Project, a 10-year clinical trial at Ohio State that involves 227 women with breast cancer. The current study is a part of that project.

Sixty breast cancer patients whose cancer had returned were compared with 120 breast cancer patients who had not had a recurrence and were disease-free. Study participants, each of whom had a romantic partner, were surveyed at the time of recurrence diagnosis and four, eight and 12 months later. They answered questions about the level of satisfaction with their relationship as well as satisfaction with their sexual life, including frequency of intercourse and kissing.

The analyses showed that the women in the recurrence group initially had significantly lower intercourse frequency and physical functioning compared to the disease-free group, and these differences were maintained during the 12-month observational period. The study suggests that the frequency of intercourse is the most vulnerable aspect of sexuality following a recurrence.

Importantly, the study data show no significant differences between the two groups in the women's general evaluations of their relationship or their sexual satisfaction. Overall, both groups rated their sexual lives as "somewhat inadequate," yet both groups on average reported being "very happy" with their partner. Thus, despite the emotional distress occurring at recurrence diagnosis and the disruption in intercourse frequency that follows, patients maintain other forms of intimacy and their relationships appear resilient.

"We used to think of cancer survivors as only patients who were treated and remained without evidence of recurrent disease, but increasingly they are patients whose cancer returns and becomes a chronic disease that they live with on a daily basis," says Shapiro, also director of the Lance Armstrong Foundation's Livestrong Survivorship Center of Excellence at Ohio State. "Their life goes on, despite the burdens of the disease and its recurrence, which often includes treatment with chemotherapy and radiation."

"Sexuality remains a way in which couples express their needs and support of one another, even in the most difficult times," Andersen says. "Of all aspects of life that cancer can change, intimacy is something that patients