Sex and intimacy is an integral part of being human and it has many health benefits: it’s good for our mood, for feeling loved, showing love and contrary to that well know excuse, it’s a great way to relieve headaches!
Experiencing ill health or being diagnosed with a life-threatening illness is a major life event and can impact negatively on a person’s sexuality, their sexual functioning and their relationship. For some, sex will be the last thing on their minds, for others it will be a way of maintaining a sense of normality. Each person may need different things from those in charge of their care but they should all be offered an early opportunity to discuss the potential sexual side effects or consequences related to their illness, injury or disease, or as a result of their surgery and treatment.
And it is our responsibility to ensure that we have those discussions. Otherwise they will experience what we call ‘the silent scream’, worrying about their problem but too shy or embarrassed to bring it up themselves, waiting in silence for their clinician to initiate a conversation.
I’m often asked about how to talk about sex – what to say, when to say it and what language to use. Sorry, there is no magic answer or formula because each clinical speciality has its own potential sexual consequences. The physical and psychological impact will vary as will the impact on people’s relationships. Some couples will continue to be intimate and sexual while others will not, some partners will be supportive and others not so kind, some will be single, happily so, but others will be actively searching, concerned about what to say to a potential new partner.
So why are sexual function issues not routinely addressed, when clinicians acknowledge that their speciality may impact on their patients’ sexual lives?
The following are some common excuses:
How do you know? What evidence is there? Maybe you’ll surprise yourself and find you can handle the worms or you may find the only worms in the can are related to your own anxiety! For some, simply being offered the opportunity to talk and be ‘heard’ will be powerful enough. No one expects you to have all the answers but knowing where further help can be accessed is essential.
Remember – it’s okay to say you don’t know but that you will find out.
Lack of time is a reality in many clinical settings but please make time for signposting to reliable websites and online resources. Or you could offer a follow-up appointment when more time is available.
In my opinion, if there’s time to talk about non-sexual symptoms there should be time to address sexual symptoms too. After all, the penis and vagina are only body parts. For example, if a man doesn’t get morning, night-time or sexually induced erections then this is a body part not getting the blood flow needed to stay healthy which impacts on the endothelial function of his manhood.
Remember – managing and treating sexual symptoms is rewarding and may save time in the long run.
Really? How do you know if you don’t ask? If your patient doesn’t want to talk with you about sex then they won’t, but for those who do want that conversation, it will be a lifeline and can prevent more complex sexual problems developing.
Remember – don’t make assumptions based on age or whether someone is in a relationship or not, just talk to them!
I think this is the main reason why the subject of sex and sexual symptoms is avoided. However, the more you practise the easier it becomes. Ensure details of websites and leaflets are available in your clinic, talk to your colleagues, ask them how they have approached the subject and what suggestions they make? What have they found helpful? This way you support each other.
Remember – it’s normal to feel anxiety when doing something new but confidence comes with practice. You already have experience talking about difficult issues; sexual symptoms are simply another issue.
Keep it simple; use proper words with a bit of extra explanation, or mime! The index finger on my right hand often doubles up as an erect penis and making a circle with my index finger and thumb with my left hand nicely illustrates the vaginal entrance. Something visual is always helpful to when illustrating a point. And the words to use? Try penis, vagina, clitoris, labia (outer lips and inner lips) penetration (penis going in your vagina or bottom), sexual intercourse (anal or vaginal), erection (getting hard) masturbation (touching yourself, having sex on your own), breasts, nipples, orgasm, ejaculation (cumming), vaginal discharge, lubrication (getting wet); to name just a few.
When is the right time?
When deciding this, use your experience and common sense. If someone is very distressed they probably won’t hear you but if you are discussing others side effects then sexual functioning should be part of that routine. In some clinical areas sexual concerns are raised post-treatment but it is really important that potential effects are mentioned early on. This allows those who wish to continue to be sexual during and after their treatment a chance to discuss any problems they might have. Make sure there are opportunities for this to happen.
Your illness, surgery or treatment can cause some sexual symptoms which we normally discuss after your treatment or at a follow-up appointment, if you want to chat about this sooner please just ask me.
By saying this you are giving them permission to bring up the subject with you.
Untreated or unaddressed sexual issues can lead to more complex sexual problems developing and the long-term impact of sexual dysfunction can be devastating. This has the potential to rob men and women of their sexual self-confidence, their femininity/masculinity and the most intimate part of their relationship. Helping to maintain or restore sexual functioning is a quality of life issue. And healthcare professionals have a major role in providing an opportunity for early discussion, offering support and treating sexual symptoms.
Finally…behind every diagnosis is a person and every person’s journey will be different. Allow them a voice and help them have a sexual life that’s important to them.
Hot flushes and night sweats – Separate single duvets on a double bed and a fan in the bedroom.
Problems sleeping? Get some nice relaxing tunes on your smartphone, radio or CD. This will distract you from feeling anxious or worried and help you fall asleep. Worried about disturbing your other half? Buy a ’sound pillow’ and plug in your device.
Managing anxiety and depression – Download meditations/mindfulness apps from Smiling Mind or Headspace. There is also a really good Aussie website that has lots of info on both anxiety and depression. See Really Useful Websites below.
Erectile dysfunction – Generic Viagra is called Sildenafil (approx. 80p per tablet) and this can be prescribed for any man on an NHS prescription. Our clinic normally prescribes eight tablets at the highest dose. Cialis, Levitra and Spedra are currently only available on an NHS prescription for men who fit Schedule II criteria (i.e. those with MS, diabetes, pelvic surgery or spinal injuries). However, the long-acting nature of Cialis 20mgs (up to 36hrs) gives men the freedom to be spontaneous and takes the pressure off their partner so if they fit the criteria or can afford to pay for the medication on a private prescription, it is an excellent treatment choice.
Vaginal dryness – This is a very common, distressing and painful symptom of menopause which can be easily treated with vaginal moisturisers such as Hyalofemme. A silicone or oil-based lubricant should also be recommended as this serves a different purpose. Hyalofemme will provide moisture that lasts up to three days and will restore the ability to have spontaneous sex for many women, so that they do not need a lubricant to create a slippery surface on the vaginal walls for a short time (it can last for around 30 minutes). But some women will still want a lubricant, which can ease penetration and enhance sensation as well as avoiding friction. Lubrication also makes penetration easier for men with a less than rigid erection.
Twister for adults – Some people need to change their positon for sexual intercourse due to injury, illness or surgery, and they can ‘practice’ them in comfortable clothing. This makes it fun and means they aren’t trying to stay sexually aroused at the same time as trying something new.
Get fit for sex – We know exercise is good for our general health, to combat fatigue and improve our energy levels but it can also help us get fit for sex. According to Professor Mike Kirby ‘if you can walk on the flat for 20mins without getting breathless or experiencing chest pain, you are safe for sex’. Sex in the morning when you are awake and relaxed, rather than being tired after a long day, is also a good idea.
Rebuilding relationships – For couples who haven’t been intimate or sexual for some time, suggestions such as sitting together to watch a film or having breakfast in bed together sound simple but can be effective in re-establishing a closer relationship. Showering or bathing together are non-threatening ways of touching each other again. Suggest ‘clear boundaries’ so they know sex is initially off the agenda. This reduces performance anxiety and improves relaxation and arousal. This is important for women who are worried about sexual pain or men worried whether they will get an erection, as it allows them to relax and enjoy getting close again without the pressure to perform sexually. Gradually, as their confidence improves, they can take things further.
Angela (BA (Hons), PST Dip, CH Dip, COSRT acc.) is the Lead for Psychosexual Therapy at the Chandos Clinic, a sexual dysfunction service for men and women with a wide range of sexual difficulties based at Nottingham University Hospital Trust.