Citing the need for a “cultural shift” in the medical profession, British researcher Dr. Isabel White tackled a challenging and sometimes uncomfortable topic in her presentation at the 16th International Conference on Cancer Nursing—sex after a cancer diagnosis.

“You do not have to be an expert on sexual well-being,” White, a researcher at the European Institute of Health and Medical Sciences, advised the crowd of nurses and nursing researchers in the question-and-answer session following her talk. “What’s important is that you raise the topic.”

In her presentation, White focused primarily on how nurses and doctors raise the topic with patients. Arguing against “narrow biomedical reductionism,” White pleaded for a more holistic approach to an under-reported and sometimes ignored aspect of cancer. Many medical professionals emphasize the biomedical aspect rather than the emotional impact of reduced sexual capacity, White observed, focusing on the treatable physical manifestations of cancer on sexual performance and satisfaction while ignoring the relationship dimension.

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Citing a 2006 Macmillian Cancer Support study on the emotional impact of cancer, White reported that 58% of respondents said their emotional needs had not been addressed as carefully as their physical needs. Twenty-six percent experienced relationship difficulties, and 43% said they experienced sexual dysfunction of one kind or another. Despite the commonplace problem, “sex is still seen as something as a fringe benefit, something extra” by both medical professionals and some patients, White observed.

White advocates “Oncosexology”—an interdisciplinary approach that combines psychological and biomedical approaches and places the couple at the heart of the treatment for cancer-related sexual dysfunction.

When asked by a conference attendee what nurses should take away from her talk, White replied: “The take home is ‘how do you create an environment where permission is given for them to raise the question?’ Convince the skeptics: It’s not just sex for the sake of sex; it’s also sex for the importance of maintaining relationship.”