Sexual function in patients receiving chemo radiation for Head and Neck Cancer

14 September 2018

A diagnosis of cancer and accompanying treatment can have a negative effect on sexual function. Many people with cancer find this a distressing and worrying feature of their illness which can reduce quality of life. It has been known for some years that patients with head and neck cancers are particularly prone to developing alterations in body image, depression and psychological distress but there has been little evidence relating to sexuality and reductions in sexual function (Rhoten 2017).

A large study from the Netherlands has now shown that patients with head and neck cancers treated with chemo-radiation suffer a reduction in sexual interest and enjoyment following and during treatment.

Melissant et al (2018) recruited 354 patients treated with chemo radiation and assessed them at intervals from just before treatment to two years following treatment completion. The assessment methodology was to employ 3 different PROMS at 7 points throughout treatment and follow-up. The results showed that around 30% of patients had a reduction in sexual interest and enjoyment just prior to treatment; at 6 weeks post treatment this peaked at around 60% of all patients. The major factors associated with this effect were found to be problems with social interaction, constipation, and weight-loss. Women had a greater reduction in sexual activity and enjoyment at between 6months and a year post treatment but at two years this discrepancy had reversed with more men suffering longer term reductions although sexual function tended to return to pre-treatment levels over time.

This study seems to indicate that patients undergoing oncological treatments for head and neck cancer should be assessed for changes in sexual function and focussed support offered. The study also shows that the impact of a cancer diagnosis and treatment could be mitigated successfully with good symptom control, nutrition and rehabilitation.

To access the study click HERE