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Soc Sci Med. 2007 Apr;64(8):1704-18. Epub 2007 Jan 29.

Constructions of sexuality and intimacy after cancer: patient and health professional perspectives.

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La Trobe University, Bundoora, Victoria, Australia.


With an increasing emphasis on the provision of psychosocial support for patients in cancer and palliative care, an emerging body of literature has highlighted the importance of providing the opportunity for patients to discuss issues of intimacy and sexuality with their health professionals. Very little is known about why health professionals struggle with this level of communication in clinical practice. The aim of this paper is to discuss constructions of intimacy and sexuality in cancer and palliative care from patient and health professional perspectives. A three stage reflexive inquiry was used to systematically and critically analyse data from semi-structured interviews (n=82), a textual analysis of 33 national and international clinical practice guidelines and participant feedback at 15 forums where preliminary research findings were presented to patients and health professionals in cancer and palliative care. The study was conducted across one public teaching hospital in Australia from 2002 to 2005. Data were further analysed drawing upon the work of Giddens on reflexivity, intimacy and sexuality, to reveal that the majority of health professionals embraced a less reflexive, more medicalised approach about patient issues of intimacy and sexuality after cancer. This was in stark contrast to the expectations of patients. Cancer had interrupted their sense of self, including how they experienced changes to intimate and sexual aspects of their lives, irrespective of their age, gender, culture, type of cancer or partnership status. Key findings from this project reveal incongruence between the way patients and health professionals constructed sexuality and intimacy. Structures which govern cancer and palliative care settings perpetrated the disparity and made it difficult for health professionals to regard patients as people with sexual and intimate needs or to express their own vulnerability when communicating about these issues in the clinical practice setting. A degree of reflexivity about personal and professional constructions of sexuality and intimacy was required for health professionals to confidently challenge these dominant forces and engage in the type of communication patients were seeking.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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