Patient-provider communication about sexual concerns in cancer: a systematic review

J Cancer Surviv. 2017 Apr;11(2):175-188. doi: 10.1007/s11764-016-0577-9. Epub 2016 Nov 17.


Purpose: Cancer survivors' needs around sexual concerns are often unmet. The primary objective of this systematic review was to examine the prevalence of and factors associated with patient-provider communication about sexual concerns in cancer.

Methods: Using PRISMA guidelines, we searched PubMed/MEDLINE, PsychInfo, and CINAHL databases for peer-reviewed quantitative research papers (2000-2015) in cancer samples. Search terms across three linked categories were used (sexuality, communication, and cancer). The National Comprehensive Cancer Network (NCCN) Sexual Function Guidelines were used as a framework to categorize communication reported in each study.

Results: Twenty-nine studies from 10 countries (29 % in USA) were included. Studies assessed patients only (21), providers only (4), and both (4). Communication measures differed across studies and many lacked validity data. When reported by patients or providers, the average prevalence of discussing potential treatment effects on sexual function was 50 (60 % for men and 28 % for women) and 88 %, respectively. As reported by patients or providers, respectively, assessing patients' sexual concerns (10 and 21 %) and offering treatments (22 and 17 %) were measured in fewer studies and were reported less frequently. Both patients and providers (28 and 32 %, respectively) reported a low prevalence of other non-specific communication. Greater prevalence of communication was associated with male patient gender and more years of provider experience.

Conclusions: Sexual issues go unaddressed for many cancer survivors, particularly women. Both patient and provider interventions are needed.

Implications for cancer survivors: Enhancing patient-provider communication about sexual concerns through evidence-based interventions could improve patient sexual function and quality of life.

Keywords: Cancer; Communication; Patient-provider communication; Sexual function; Sexual health.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Aged
  • Communication
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms / mortality
  • Neoplasms / psychology*
  • Quality of Life
  • Sexual Behavior / psychology*
  • Survivors