A new University of Western Sydney research project will aim to make the experience of cancer more manageable by helping couples reclaim closeness and intimacy in their relationships.
Professor Jane Ussher, from the UWS School of Psychology, says the diagnosis and treatment of cancer can often result in the complete cessation of sex and intimate physical contact.
"Sexuality and intimacy is central to psychological wellbeing and quality of life. For many couples, this alteration in their physical relationship is the most significant and damaging aspect of the entire cancer experience," says Professor Ussher.
"In a recent pilot study of 156 partners of a person with cancer, 80% reported an impact of cancer on the sexual relationship, while the cessation or decreased frequency of sex and intimacy was reported by 59% of women and 79% of men, across all cancer types."
Professor Ussher and fellow UWS researchers Dr Janette Perz and Dr Emilee Gilbert have received Australian Research Council (ARC) funding for a new study which will examine the changes in sexuality and intimacy post-cancer.
People with cancer, or people who have had cancer, and their intimate partners are invited to take part in the study, which aims to develop new programs that will help people communicate their sexual desires and needs with their partners and allow them to re-negotiate their sexual lives.
Professor Ussher says changes in sexual relationships can be brought about due to the physical limitations of cancers which harm the reproductive organs, or the stress, pain, fatigue, exhaustion and reduced libido associated with cancer treatments.
"Other reasons may be that couples may also feel that sex is inappropriate when they are coping with the illness and survival, or the emotional and physical exhaustion that often results from caring for a person with cancer may leave no inclination or time for sex or intimacy," says Professor Ussher.
"Partners may also repress their own sexual needs for the assumed benefit of the person with cancer and, by re-positioning the person as a patient, may find it difficult to continue to see their partner as a sexual person."
Professor Ussher says the cessation of sex is a serious problem because maintaining closeness and intimacy has been found to have innumerable benefits for cancer patients as well as their partners.
"Sexual intimacy can make the experience of cancer more manageable and assist in the recovery process, or be central to couple closeness and quality of life in palliative care," she says.
"If sexual intercourse ceases, all other forms of touching and affectionate physical contact can also diminish, which can lead couples to feel isolated, anxious, depressed, inadequate, or emotionally distant from their partner."
According to Professor Ussher, the problem can be further demonstrated by the findings of the recent pilot study which found that only 16% of couples renegotiated sexual practices post-cancer; only 20% of people discussed sex with a health professional, and of those, only a third were satisfied with the discussion.
(Source: University of Western Sydney: May 2009)