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Childhood Cancer Treatments Can Actually Affect a Survivor’s Future Sex Life

It’s no surprise that there are some serious side effects that come with cancer treatments, but we didn’t exactly see this coming. A recent study shows that the most toxic cancer treatments, like chemotherapy or radiation to the brain, are likely to affect a survivor’s future relationship status.

Because of advances in medicine and technology, more and more children are surviving cancer treatments — and this is great. But the journey doesn’t end when treatment does. According to CureSearch for Children’s Cancer, up to 60 percent of childhood cancer survivors will experience physical, emotional and developmental problems later in life, called “late-effects.” Some examples of these complications would be things like poor bone health, vision problems or educational struggles. In this case, some of these treatments can also keep patients from reaching key intimate milestones in their adult life.

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So in the study, a group of young adult survivors were compared to a group of young adults who had not endured cancer treatment as children. What differences did they find? Well, there’s good news and bad news.

The good news is that survivors did not have different levels of satisfaction with their sex lives or romantic relationships than those who did not have cancer. In other words, things like their reported levels of communication, intimacy and support within their relationships were all on par with their peers.

The bad news? Survivors are way less likely to have had sex, to be in a relationship or to have kids.

“Psychosexual development entails reaching certain milestones, such as sexual debut, entering committed relationships, or having children,” said head researcher Vicky Lehmann, Ph.D. of Nationwide Children’s Hospital and Ohio State University in Columbus in a recent statement to Science Daily.

“It is a normative part of becoming an adolescent or young adult, but only comparing such milestones without taking satisfaction into account falls short. These issues are understudied among survivors of childhood cancer,” she explained.

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And she’s right — these issues are among some of the late-effects that don’t attract as much attention. Maybe this is because people don’t want their sex lives investigated by a panel of researchers. But maybe this is more telling of what research on the subject misses: the serious personal and psychological tolls that something like childhood cancer can have on a person.

Cancer leaves visible scars and cancer leaves hidden voids. It can leave survivors feeling misunderstood and vulnerable. Perhaps one survivor feels self-conscious about their body and another is just too scared to have kids. To really determine what this research means and how we can support survivors experiencing these effects, the methods of research need to change first.

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