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sexual intimacy in cancer patients

By Clayton Boldt

Sexual intimacy problems are one of the most common long-term side effects that cancer patients face. In a survey of MD Anderson cancer patients, almost half of men and women said they had new sexual intimacy problems after treatment. Common sexual intimacy problems include:

  • Erection problems in men
  • Vaginal dryness and pain in women
  • Loss of sexual desire

Below, Leslie Schover, Ph.D., professor in Behavioral Science and Gynecologic Oncology and Reproductive Medicine, answers common questions about sexual problems affecting cancer patients and how to address them.

Why do cancer patients often experience sexual side effects?

A major cause of these issues is physical damage or changes from cancer treatment. Radiation or surgery in the pelvic area can make sex painful or difficult, and may damage blood vessels or nerves critical for male performance.

In women, chemotherapy may cause premature menopause, and hormone therapies can be linked to pain during sex.

room service for cancer patients

By Trevor Mitchell

Picking up the phone to order a nutritious, freshly prepared meal that's delivered by an attendant wearing a tuxedo might seem more common at a four-or five-star hotel than a cancer center. But it's a luxury our patients have enjoyed for more than 15 years.

The days of traditional hospital food on pre-prepared trays brought to all patient rooms at the same time are long gone, says Mohammad Tekrouri, associate director of Room Service. Room Service programs like ours that provide efficient, high quality, cooked-to-order culinary options have become essential to ensuring a better patient experience.

"Patients prefer to be in control of their dining experience because there are times when they're resting, the medical staff is in the room, or they simply don't feel like eating," Tekrouri says. "Our service offers them the flexibility to order food when they feel like it at multiple times throughout the day."

A personalized touch
When cancer patients are admitted, they receive a brief orientation from our room service staff. They're given menus and told how to place their orders. Room Service is included in each patient's stay and is available 365 days a year, from 6:30 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. Family members also can order meals for a fee.

"Patients and family members eating together can encourage the patient to eat and offers convenience for those who can't leave their loved one even for a minute," Tekrouri says.

Physician assistant moonlights as aerial dancer

By Jenny Montgomery

Like millions of other people, physician assistant Aki Ohinata gets bored with exercise. But instead of longing for a comfy couch and a bag of chips, she prefers a bigger challenge and a shot of adrenaline. That's how she ended up getting her workout while dangling 20 feet in the air. For an hour and a half a night. Four nights a week.

Ohinata, who works in Gastrointestinal Medical Oncology by day, is an aerial dancer by night. Think strength and endurance, Cirque du Soleil and mid-air acrobatics.

"It started as a New Year's resolution to try something new," says Ohinata, who's held the same job at MD Anderson since becoming a physician assistant over a decade ago. "I love my patients, and I love my job, but I need those hours after work to re-energize myself. Then I use that energy to treat patients the next day."

The thrill of a challenge: Becoming an aerial dancer
Pushing herself to the limit is a lifetime habit.

As a child in Dallas, Ohinata set her sights on becoming an Olympic gymnast. For years, she dashed straight from school to the gym, and gymnastic competitions filled her weekends. That came to a stop when her family moved to Tokyo when she was a teenager. But her attraction to active pursuits never diminished.

exercise shoes

Sticking to an exercise routine while helping a loved one through cancer treatment can be a challenge. That's especially true when you're spending a lot of time at the hospital or clinic.

But you don't have to train for a 5K or go to the gym to burn calories and enjoy the benefits of exercise. Many things you do while you're at MD Anderson count as exercise.

"Any time you're moving around counts," says Carol Harrison, senior exercise physiology technologist at MD Anderson. 

How to achieve the benefits of exercise
Just 30 minutes of daily moderate physical activity can reduce your risk for cancer and other diseases. Exercise also can help lower stress, anxiety, fatigue and depression.  

Lynn-Randolph.jpgBy Lynn Randolph

Every Tuesday afternoon for the last seven years, I've visited MD Anderson to help cancer patients and families in the palliative care unit heal through art. I do this as an artist-in-residence with a non-profit organization called COLLAGE: The Art For Cancer Network.  

Both my husband and my brother were patients at MD Anderson. When I was asked to become an artist-in-residence at the hospital, I was reluctant. My husband's death was the most painful experience of my life. Then I thought maybe I could help others going through what I had.

Here is an account of one typical visit.

I knocked on the door of the hospital room and I heard a deep voice say, "Come in." The room was dark and full of sadness. A young man sat on the far side of the bed holding his mother's hand and weeping. His father -- her husband -- stood tall on the side near me. His red-rimmed eyes and stoic countenance were heart-breaking. I told them why I'd interrupted them. I waited to be dismissed, but they invited me in. I sat down and thought, "What can I do? They have formed a sacred circle of love around her, and now does not seem like a good time to interfere."

Intuitively, I blurted out, "Is there anything I can draw for you?"

"Can you draw some mourning doves?" the husband asked.

I pulled a pencil out of my bag of supplies and one of the handmade paper sketchbooks I designed for just this purpose. I drew two mourning doves suspended in flight and handed the drawing to him. "Oh," he said, and clasped it to his body. He shared the drawing with his son, and they both thanked me.

I got up and left, returning them to their circle of love with an image of holy spirits.

girl-with-questions.jpgThe minutes, days and weeks after you're diagnosed with cancer can be overwhelming, scary and lonely.

But, as cancer patients and survivors recently shared in our Facebook community, you can get through this time.

Here's their advice for newly diagnosed cancer patients.

  • Don't dwell on statistics. This is your experience, and no two people, cancer diagnoses or experiences are exactly alike.
  • Knowledge is power. Research your disease and treatment options. Ask questions. Take notes when you meet with your doctor. This will help you feel more at peace with your decisions.
  • Be your own advocate. You know your body and your wishes for treatment better than anyone else, so speak up if something doesn't seem right.
  • Don't rush into treatment. Where you go first for treatment matters. The decisions you make now can affect your treatment options and prognosis down the road. So, take time to choose a cancer center, and evaluate your treatment options. Get a second opinion if you're not happy with the options you're given.

Whattosaytosomeonewithcancer.jpgWhen a friend or loved one receives a cancer diagnosis, it's important to be there and show you care. But finding the right words can be hard.

What can you say that won't scare or upset your friend or loved one? What can you say that will give them the hope and strength they need to confront cancer?

We recently asked the cancer patients, survivors and caregivers in our Facebook community to share the best things to say to someone with cancer.

Here's what they recommend.


By Lindi Senez

Fighting cancer is truly a team effort. But what happens when the caregiver of the team is no longer the caregiver? What happens when your loved one passes away, and you have to find your new normal?

This is what I've struggled to figure out since my husband, Dave, died one year ago on June 30, 2014.

Saying goodbye to Dave and my role as his caregiver
For eight years, Dave fought hemangiopericytoma, a type of brain tumor, in the most relentless, selfless journey I've ever witnessed. I was his full-time caregiver while continuing to teach high school science, run our family's brain tumor foundation and care for our beautiful, blue-eyed baby boy.

After sleepless nights researching brain tumors and clinical trials that might provide relief, I began to listen when Dave said, "You'll be OK."

Still, I wasn't quite sure how I would find meaning in my life again.

Garza_Library_049.jpgBy Gillian Kruse

The room is kept cold and dim, but it's not for medicine or lab samples.

Instead, this helps maintain the archives in the Historical Resources Center of the Research Medical Library.

Rare texts share shelf space with boxes and files from our past presidents and early leaders.

"We had a man come from out of state to view one of the rare books," says Javier Garza, an archivist in the library. "We were the only library out of all the institutions he contacted that had this specific pathology book."

Most items in the archives can't be found anywhere else.

The archives tell our story and the story of the Texas Medical Center. Our own doctors and researchers wrote many of the books.

Preserving MD Anderson's history

Founded in 2000, the Historical Resources Center is a collection of books, photographs, papers and artifacts about MD Anderson and the people who helped build the cancer center we know today. The archives are available to anyone.

Items typically come to the archives when retiring doctors or researchers donate their materials, or when employees of a department or lab find hidden things when they're moving to a new space. In both instances, the library preserves the items that best illustrate our history and the evolution of cancer care.

Yoga_SmithaMallaiah_067.jpgBy Lindsey Garner

The room is quiet. Soft light streams through the shaded windows. A soothing voice breaks the silence and addresses the cancer patients and caregivers sitting on yoga mats.

"Focus on your breath. Inhale deeply and exhale," Smitha Mallaiah says. "Bring in positivity and let go of your tension."

Mallaiah, a mind-body intervention specialist at MD Anderson, leads our Yoga for Health class. This is one of several group classes offered for cancer patients and caregivers at our Integrative Medicine Center. The class teaches gentle stretching, breathing and meditation.

Our mind-body intervention specialists offer practices like yoga and meditation to complement cancer treatment and help improve quality of life for our patients and their families.

Mallaiah's goal is to help people taking her class relax and enjoy mindfulness. She says mindfulness is being in the present moment without judgment and realizing your potential for love and kindness.

Cancer affects patients in many ways, Mallaiah says. They're affected by the disease, treatments and side effects such as fatigue. And they're facing the stress of cancer and still needing to manage work and other aspects of life.

"Mind-body practices such as yoga give people the opportunity to be more accepting of their situation and face it and feel more in control," Mallaiah says. "It also provides great physical benefits."

What our mind-body intervention specialists do
Mallaiah, her mind-body intervention specialist colleagues, Rosalinda Engle and Amie Koronczok, along with Alejandro Chaoul, Ph.D., assistant professor in Palliative, Rehabilitation, and Integrative Medicine, are trained in a variety of mind-body techniques. They work together to promote and model habits of health for our patients, caregivers and employees. Recently, they started a yoga class for pediatric patients in MD Anderson Children's Cancer Hospital.

Nurse_Training_218 - cw.jpgBy Lindsay Lewis

As a nurse right out of school, Carlos Hernandez knows it can take time to master the skills needed to become a good nurse.

"New nurses come to work every day hoping to learn something new, build trust with our teams and become comfortable with our practice," says Hernandez, a clinical nurse on our stem cell transplant unit. "But what we really need is confidence -- and to know that we're making a difference for our patients."

To help build that confidence and ensure that our patients are getting the best care possible, MD Anderson has started a simulation training program. It gives new nurses role-playing situations with real patients.

"It's really important that we give our new nurses a way to develop relationship-building and communication skills with patients early in their nursing careers," says Kelly LaFrentz, who manages the program.

A new approach for training nurses
The simulation program is designed to bridge the gap between what new nurses learn in school and what they experience at patients' bedsides. It gives nurses a safe environment to run through real-life scenarios and gain valuable feedback.

"You don't know what you don't know until you've been through it," says James Cavalier, Jr., who runs the simulation center. "With this type of learning, nurses are able to identify their own opportunities for improvement as well as validate what they're doing right. It quickly builds their confidence."

linda69.jpgBy Linda Ryan

It's been almost four years since my cervical cancer recurrence, but my two sons, Matthew (17) and Ethan (13), never traveled with me to MD Anderson until my check-up last month. I planned my appointment over their spring break so we could fit in a few college visits in Texas. I knew it might be emotionally difficult for them to go to MD Anderson. So, I did my best to handle the visit the same way I handled my treatment. I tried to let them see and feel my confidence.

Not only were we there for my appointment, but they joined me on the visits with all of the wonderful people I've have met in Houston through my journey. Both boys agreed that it was cool to see my home away from home.
How our visit affected my sons

After our visit, I gave Matthew and Ethan a few weeks to digest the emotions associated with going my oncology appointment before asking them a few questions separately about the experience. They both agreed that MD Anderson was not what they expected.

They were both surprised and saddened by how many people -- of all ages, races and genders -- were treated at MD Anderson. Matthew said being there made him sad because he knew what the families he saw were going through. 


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