Psychosexual Development and Sexual Functioning in Young Adult Survivors of Childhood Cancer

J Sex Med. 2022 Nov;19(11):1644-1654. doi: 10.1016/j.jsxm.2022.07.014. Epub 2022 Sep 8.


Background: Childhood cancer and its treatment can impair survivors' development throughout life, particularly psychosexual development, which can be affected in complex ways and is crucial for survivors' well-being. Yet, research is scarce.

Aim: This study assessed psychosexual development (milestone attainment, age at attainment, perceived timing) in young adult survivors of childhood cancer. It further examined sexual satisfaction and sexual functioning, and whether survivors' perceived timing of sexual debut was related to satisfaction or functioning.

Methods: A registry-based nationwide survey was completed by N = 492 German survivors of childhood cancer (age 21-26 years, 6-26 years postdiagnosis). They completed standardized measures of psychosexual milestones (eg, first kiss, sexual debut), sexual satisfaction, and sexual functioning. Psychosexual development was compared to normative data (N = 1,533).

Outcomes: Psychosexual development, sexual satisfaction, and sexual functioning were the primary outcome measures. Psychosexual development was characterized in three ways: milestone attainment (yes/no), age at attainment, perceived timing ("right" time, too early/late).

Results: Milestone attainment was comparable to normative data, except for sexual debut: Survivors were less often experienced (82.5% vs 88%; P = .002) and older at sexual debut (17.4 vs 16.2 years; g = 0.55), but most survivors (58.3%) perceived their timing as "right." Survivors of brain tumors were least likely to have had their sexual debut, but if experienced age at sexual debut was similar to other survivors. Female survivors were somewhat more experienced than males (eg, first kiss, first relationship; <10% difference), but they were somewhat older when they first kissed (g = 0.26). Age at diagnosis was unrelated to milestone attainment. Perceived early/late sexual debut was related to lower satisfaction in female survivors (P = .026), but unrelated to sexual dysfunction. Instead, partnered men reported particularly low dysfunction whereas women reported similar levels of sexual dysfunction irrespective of their relationship status (P = .049). Overall, sexual functioning was favorable (60.2%: not/barely problematic).

Clinical implications: Most survivors reported favorable sexual satisfaction and functioning, but a minority of survivors may need supportive services.

Strengths & limitations: This project represents one of few large-scale studies on psychosexual development in childhood cancer survivors relative to normative data, and is the first to link development to sexual satisfaction/functioning. Assessing satisfaction/functioning with validated, but brief measures limits detailed insights, but was inclusive of any sexual orientation. Medical background information based on registry data was limited.

Conclusion: Results showed normative psychosexual development (except for sexual debut) in most survivors. A self-determined attitude toward sexuality (ie, engaging in sexual activities at the "right" time) may generally determine positive sexual experiences. Lehmann V, Gerhardt CA, Baust K, et al. Psychosexual Development and Sexual Functioning in Young Adult Survivors of Childhood Cancer. J Sex Med 2022;19:1645-1654.

Keywords: Cancer Survivorship; Childhood Cancer; Psychosexual Development; Sexual Functioning; Sexual Satisfaction; Young Adulthood.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Cancer Survivors*
  • Child
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Neoplasms*
  • Psychosexual Development
  • Sexual Behavior
  • Sexual Dysfunction, Physiological*
  • Surveys and Questionnaires
  • Survivors
  • Young Adult