Blog | Sunday, June 2, 2013

ASCO '13: Assessing sexual function in cancer patients

Leslie Schover, PhD, is not the biggest fan of the new National Comprehensive Cancer Network guidelines on cancer survivorship---at least not the section on sexual function. "Great concept, totally impractical," she said at a session at the American Society of Clinical Oncology's annual meeting in Chicago. 

For women, the guideline first recommends an initial interview assessment. "If you discover any kind of problem, it would take at least five minutes just to get through that questionnaire," said Dr. Schover, a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center in Houston. The initial assessment for men involves a short self-report questionnaire, but there are problems with that too, she noted, because it only asks about erections and doesn't address other potential issues, such as decreased sexual desire, pain, or changes in orgasm function.  

"Then, if you find a problem, you’re supposed to right then and there do a more complete sexual history, counsel the person on the impact of their cancer treatment on their sex life and their fertility, and do a physical exam," Dr. Schover said. "My question is, who’s going to spend 20 to 30 minutes on sexuality with literally half the patients in most oncology treatment settings?" Not only is there a lack of expertise in this area, she said, insurance coverage can also be problematic. 

As an alternative method that would achieve some of the same goals, Dr. Schover recommended following a model more like that used for psychological conditions in the U.K., which involves providing patients access to classes, written workbooks, or websites that can then be supplemented with phone counseling or e-mail feedback, often by a peer or a trained nonprofessional coach. Individual therapy with a professional can then be offered to patients who need it. 

Dr. Schover said her research group, funded by small business grants from the National Cancer Institute, has developed websites on sexuality and fertility in cancer patients that also incorporate video vignettes and interviews, which she feels could be helpful given the very private nature of the topics. "Many people might not go to a support group but might be willing to use a website," she said.

The goals of this approach, according to Dr. Schover, are to educate people about the impact of their cancer treatment, give them self-help skills on sexual communication and avoidance of sexual problems, and provide guidance on how to find appropriate medical care. “I think that just in general, as an approach, this is a more practical way to try to get that information out there,” she said.