Sexual healthcare for cancer patients receiving palliative care: a narrative review
Palliative care aims to improve quality of life (QoL) for patients and families and does so by addressing issues not limited to pathology, but other symptoms that may be debilitating to patient experience and QoL. Despite sexual health being an important aspect of life for many patients, it is often omitted in clinical practice. This review summarizes published primary studies to explore the prevalence and importance of incorporating sexual health in the symptom screening and assessments of palliative patients, to identify current interventions that are implemented to address sexual health issues, and identify the barriers that health care professionals (HCPs) and patients may encounter which may prevent sexual health discussions. A literature review was conducted on Medline and Embase databases using keywords including “cancer”, “sexual health”, “intimacy”, and “palliative care”. Eleven papers focusing on the sexual health and intimacy of terminally ill patients in hospice, palliative or terminal care settings were identified for inclusion. Discussions about sexual health, functioning, and intimacy were not common in patient care, despite being a service that both patients and their partners desired. Referrals to sexologists, or discussions with patients and partners about intimacy and sexuality over the course of the disease trajectory were shown to improve QoL as well as alleviate some of the stress of receiving palliative care services. HCPs cited a lack of training, their own life experiences, or discomfort with the topic as barriers to initiating conversations with patients. In conclusion, sexuality and intimacy remain important parts of many people’s lives regardless of their health, and should be incorporated into the care of all patients including those in palliative care. There is a need for further research to evaluate different methods or procedures for educating and counselling patients and their partners on sexual health issues. HCPs should have specific training and education in sexual health care to enable them to initiate and direct these discussions.