Alberta Cancer Foundation

Encouraging Intimacy

Illustration by Pete Ryan

Sexual changes related to cancer treatment are common. In fact, research shows that sexual health challenges are one of the most distressing and longest-lasting side effects of cancer treatment. Nevertheless, Kelsey Kenway, an occupational therapist at the Central Alberta Cancer Centre (CACC) in Red Deer, says she often hears the following words from people who have undergone cancer treatment and are struggling with sexual health: “I should just be thankful to be alive.”

But Kenway believes it doesn’t have to be that way. As a member of the CACC’s working group on sexual health, Kenway believes that addressing difficulties related to sexual health and intimacy is an important, and often overlooked, part of a patient’s cancer journey.

“It’s okay to talk about what has changed,” she says.

The CACC Sexual Health working group formed in late 2017, and one of its primary goals is to support and enhance staff’s knowledge of issues related to sexual health due to cancer treatments and improve consistency of addressing these concerns with patients. The multidisciplinary group offers support to care providers and patients in Red Deer and surrounding communities and includes representatives from occupational therapy, social work, nursing and radiation therapy.

With funding from the Alberta Cancer Foundation, Kenway and other CACC care providers completed a two-part course in sexual health and cancer care through the de Souza Institute. The course helps health professionals in cancer care integrate human sexuality in their thinking and practice and provides resources and strategies on how to manage sexual health concerns. Following the de Souza training, the working group facilitated training for representatives from each CACC department in order to disseminate the information that had been learned and share available resources. Staff can also access recent sexual health literature and local resources on the centre’s shared drive.

The group also designed a PowerPoint presentation that addresses common topics such as fatigue and brain fog, in addition to slides that identify possible sexual-health and intimacy-related side effects for both female and male cancer patients. The presentation will be shown on a cyclical rotation on the public monitors throughout the centre on its own channel, in an attempt to prompt the conversation between patient and provider.

The CACC also has a dedicated, on-site clerk who triages any inquiries related to sexual health — patients with relationship or body image concerns are connected with a social worker; patients with pain, fatigue and positioning issues are connected with an occupational therapist; and questions about medications or erectile dysfunction are directed to a nurse practitioner.

Kenway says these initiatives support central Albertans and build capacity in smaller centres like the CACC, so patients can avoid travelling for services or having their sexuality and intimacy concerns go unaddressed.

“It’s a holistic way to approach sexual health,” she says. “For all of us to address it, and to make patients feel that it’s okay to bring up the topic.”