Nurses and other health care providers are unprepared and uncomfortable when initiating discussions about sexuality with their patients, according to an abstract presented at the 36th Annual Congress of the Oncology Nursing Society by nurses from The University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center.

Sexual problems often result from the physical and psychological side effects associated with cancer and cancer treatment. Many cancer patients, male and female, experience significant issues related to sexual functioning, body image and intimacy.

?Sexuality is an important aspect of human health and patient care that is all too often hush-hush in the hospital,? said Lucy Mathew, RN, BSN, MA a clinical nurse at MD Anderson and an author on the presentation. ?Nurses can play a key role in addressing a patient?s concerns and being their first line of information.?

In their review of literature on nurses? knowledge, attitudes, and beliefs, Mathew and her colleagues found multiple barriers to addressing sexuality issues with their patients, including lack of necessary knowledge, confidence and comfort initiating the discussion. Evidence also indicated that nurses? attitudes can be improved by education.

?Our follow up conversations with practicing nurses showed that they understood the need to address sexual problems in their patient assessments, but were afraid they wouldn?t have the answers to a patient?s questions,? Mathew said.

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Working with Mary Hughes, MS, RN, CNS, CT, a clinical nurse specialist in MD Anderson?s Department of Psychiatry and an expert on the topic of sexuality and cancer, the team established an educational session for nurses on the unit. A patient education brochure on sexuality and cancer was made available in English and Spanish for nurses to give patients in their initial assessment. Post-evaluation determined both efforts increased nurses? comfort levels and interaction with patients on the issue.

?We wanted to provide nurses with the necessary knowledge and tools, so that they are competent approaching patients on sexual issues. Because many patients are also embarrassed to ask about sexual problems they experience, it?s a conversation often ignored, unless a nurse first addresses it,? Mathew said.

Mathew noted there is a need for sexuality education beginning in nursing school and continuing throughout the nurse?s career.

Multidisciplinary nursing excellence is a central pillar in MD Anderson?s worldwide reputation for cancer care. MD Anderson employs nearly 3,000 professional nurses who are highly specialized in addressing patient care, treatment and quality of life issues. The new academic department within the Division of Nursing is working to grow nursing research and evidence-based practice initiatives and enhance educational opportunities for all levels of nurses.

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