Let’s talk about sex: Risky business for cancer and palliative care clinicians Academic Article uri icon


  • Few health professionals feel confident and comfortable when communicating with patients about the sexual and intimate changes that might occur after a diagnosis of cancer. Little research has focused on why health professionals find this type of patient communication so challenging. Drawing on data from a larger study examining issues of intimacy and sexuality from the perspectives of patients and health professionals in cancer and palliative care, this paper will present the health professional perspective. In the larger study a reflexive inquiry methodology enabled data to be collected through semi-structured participant interviews (n=82), a textual analysis of national and international clinical practice guidelines (n=33) and documented feedback from patients and health professionals attending educational forums where preliminary findings of the study were presented (n=15). In the part of the study reported here, a total of 32 health professionals recognised as members of a multidisciplinary team and working in cancer and or palliative care for a minimum of 12 months were interviewed. Results revealed that patient sexuality and intimacy was largely medicalised so that health professional discussions remained at the level of patient fertility, contraception, erectile or menopausal status. Many unchecked assumptions about patient sexuality were made by health professionals, based on the patient's age, diagnosis, culture, partnership and disease status. It was personally confronting and a 'risky' business to communicate about issues of patient intimacy and sexuality after cancer, particularly when the clinical setting emphasised medicalised, health professional driven and problem-based communication. Implications for practice will be discussed.

publication date

  • December 2007