Afraid to Talk About Sex

Nurses are uncomfortable discussing sexuality with cancer patients

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

(RxWiki News) Cancer isn't very sexy. The disease and its treatments usually affect a person's sexual desires, body image and willingness to be intimate. And talking about these matters isn't easy for patients or, it turns out, their health providers.

A new report presented by nurses from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center concludes that nurses and other health care providers are unprepared and uncomfortable talking about sexuality with their patients.

“Sexuality is an important aspect of human health and patient care that is all too often hush-hush in the hospital,” said Lucy Mathew, RN, BSN, MA, a Clinical Nurse at MD Anderson and an author of the presentation. “Nurses can play a key role in addressing a patient’s concerns and being their first line of information.”

"Nurses and other health professionals are uncomfortable talking about sexuality with cancer patients."

Sexual problems commonly result from the physical and psychological side effects associated with cancer and treating the disease. And while many cancer patients experience significant sexuality issues, they are embarrassed to discuss the problems.

In reviewing literature on the topic, Mathew and her colleagues found nurses are reluctant to discuss sexuality for a number of reasons. They're often afraid they don't have the right information or knowledge to offer.

Nurses also don't feel confident or comfortable asking questions and starting conversations about these issues.

Research showed that education and training could overcome these barriers and improve nurses’ attitudes. Special training sessions and materials were developed to improve communication on the topic.

“We wanted to provide nurses with the necessary knowledge and tools, so that they are competent approaching patients on sexual issues. Because many patients are also embarrassed to ask about sexual problems they experience, it’s a conversation often ignored, unless a nurse first addresses it,” Mathew said.

The Study

  • Working with Mary Hughes, MS, RN, CNS, CT, a Clinical Nurse Specialist in MD Anderson’s Department of Psychiatry and  an expert on the topic of sexuality and cancer, the team established an educational session for nurses
  • A patient education brochure on sexuality and cancer was made available in English and Spanish for nurses to give patients in their initial assessment
  • Post-evaluation determined both efforts increased nurses’ comfort levels and interaction with patients on the issue.

An abstract on this was presented at the 36th Annual Congress of the Oncology Nursing Society.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
May 2, 2011
Last Updated:
May 5, 2011