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Tendrils: Sexual Renewal After Cancer Treatment

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By Leslie R. Schover, Ph.D.,

Are you a woman whose sex life has suffered since your cancer treatment? If so, you may have had frustrating experiences with trying to get back to normal.

Your doctors and nurses may not have taken the time to talk to you about your sex life during your appointments. Oncology health professionals often worry that they won't have the time to really evaluate a sexual problem in a busy clinic. Worse yet, they may not know exactly how to make things better. As a clinical psychologist, I've spent the past 30 years of my career trying to prevent or treat sexual problems related to cancer and its treatment.

Although we have certainly gotten more comfortable with discussing sexual issues, cancer survivors sadly still have few places to turn for this type of information and support.

As people increasingly turn to the Internet for information about their cancer, I realized that I could reach many more people online than I could with a book or pamphlet. That idea led to the creation of our newest effort. Tendrils: Sexual Renewal after Cancer Treatment is a project funded by the National Cancer Institute as a small business grant. Although I am a professor in the Department of Behavioral Science at MD Anderson, I have a small business partner, Paul Martinetti, M.D., of Digital Science Technologies, L.L.C. The website is our mutual project.

tendrils_logo.jpgTendrils will provide detailed information about why many cancer treatments interfere with women's sexual pleasure and gives users suggestions on:

  • how to get back to having an active sex life if you have stopped having sex during your cancer treatment,
  • how to cope with vaginal dryness and avoid pain during sex, and
  • how to try to recapture your sense of desire and pleasure.

In creating Tendrils, I interviewed 11 women of different ages, ethnic backgrounds and cancer types about their experiences with cancer and factors that may be causing sexual problems.

The "beta" version of Tendrils is being tested in a research trial. If you are having a problem in your sex life and it has been one to five years since you were diagnosed with breast cancer or one of the gynecological cancers (cervix, ovarian, uterine, vulvar, vaginal or fallopian tube), you may be eligible to participate in this study. We are looking for women who have finished their cancer treatment (OK if you are taking hormones) and have been in a sexual relationship with a partner for at least six months.

Participants will begin by filling out a few brief questionnaires on the Tendrils website. Then they have 12 weeks to explore the site on a self-help basis.

Half of the participants will also be chosen randomly to come to MD Anderson during the 12 weeks for three face-to-face visits with a sexual counselor. That means you must live in commuting distance of Houston to effectively participate. We will take care of the cost of parking or local transportation.

At the end of the 12-week treatment period, then again three months and six months later, the women will fill out questionnaires again to track improvements in their sex life.

If you are interested in learning more about the Tendrils study, please contact Pamela Lewis, our senior research coordinator, by e-mail (plewis@mdanderson.org) or phone 713-745-5535.

For now, women have to qualify for our study to use the Tendrils website. But if our research shows benefits of using the website, we hope to have it ready for use by a wider audience soon.

Meanwhile, MD Anderson is starting to offer more resources for women who have cancer-related sexual problems.

Beginning this month, Andrea Bradford, Ph.D., is providing sexual counseling in our Department of Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine. If you are interested in an appointment for sexual counseling call 713-745-4466.



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