BACKGROUND: Sexual dysfunction is a known side effect of pelvic radiotherapy, resulting from a complex intersection of physiologic and psychosocial factors. Maintaining sexual function is relevant to long-term quality of life and is an important aspect of survivorship. Many female patients report being insufficiently informed before treatment about the potential sexual side effects of radiation therapy. AIM: To elucidate how radiation oncologists communicate sexual function side effects with their female patients and how discussing sexual side effects of cancer treatment can positively affect patient-physician rapport. METHODS: Semistructured interviews in English and Spanish were conducted with 20 female participants who received pelvic radiation as part of their cancer treatment. Patients responded to advertisements or were referred by physicians. All interviews were conducted virtually between June and October 2021. Thematic analysis was conducted with NVivo. Patients also completed an online demographics survey in REDCap. OUTCOMES: We found 4 primary themes addressing patient perspectives on patient-physician communication of sexual dysfunction and how it affected the cancer care experience. RESULTS: Theme 1: This may be expected, but I didn't expect it! The participants who were not properly informed about sexual side effects felt blindsided and embarrassed about their symptoms. Theme 2: I do not feel like a woman anymore . . . The psychological impact included lower self-esteem and no longer feeling sexy nor like a woman. Theme 3: Fine, I'll deal with this myself! Patients turned to the internet rather than their doctors for answers once they began experiencing symptoms, and they found information, normalization, and community online. Theme 4: Ask me about my sex life and find out if sex is a priority for me. Participants emphasized that their radiation oncologist should take a sexual history early to monitor sexual dysfunction and to identify individual patient priorities surrounding sex posttreatment. CLINICAL IMPLICATIONS: This evidence provides a guide to patient-physician communication that may help to mitigate the impacts of radiotherapy on female sexual function as well as the negative impact that the absence of communication about sexual dysfunction may have on patient-physician trust. STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS: While this project did have a small sample size, there is considerable diversity in race, education level, and age, with interviews conducted in Spanish and English. CONCLUSION: Overall these findings provide physicians with important information about the unmet information needs of patients and their preferences for how to help them feel more prepared and less distressed when sexual dysfunction occurs.
- sexual dysfunction