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"I think my vagina is still there?": Women's perspectives on sexual function and dysfunction following radical cystectomy for bladder cancer, a qualitative study.

BACKGROUND: Women's sexual health after radical cystectomy is an important but poorly understood aspect of bladder cancer survivorship. Dedicated investigation is needed to elucidate patient perceptions on sexual function and dysfunction in this setting.

AIMS: In this study we sought to qualitatively examine women's perceptions and experiences of sexual health following radical cystectomy for bladder cancer.

METHODS: We conducted one-on-one qualitative telephone interviews with 40 women who underwent radical cystectomy in the past 6 months to 5 years and signed a research consent form to be contacted for future studies. We examined women's experiences of engaging in sexual activity after surgery and their attitudes toward sex and body image. We audio recorded, transcribed, and coded the interviews using ATLAS.ti software and applied grounded theory methods for analysis.

OUTCOMES: For data that emerged during the qualitative interviews that was related to lack of knowledge about how physical and psychological sexual health would be affected after surgery, we reviewed and discussed transcripts that enabled coding of the data into emerging topic areas.

RESULTS: Our analysis yielded 4 main themes. (1) Women reported receiving little to no information from providers about female sexual dysfunction prior to or after radical cystectomy. Women wished they had been provided more information about female sexual dysfunction from their clinicians, including strategies for postoperative self-pleasure and nonintercourse methods of sexual pleasure with partners. (2) Women shared that they were not sexually active following surgery due to physical and mental barriers. (3) When women did try to engage in sex, they described feeling disappointed that it did not feel the same as prior to surgery. (4) Some women found that physical therapy helped them to physically and mentally recover their strength to engage in sexual activity again.

CLINICAL IMPLICATIONS: Clinicians must directly address sexual health concerns with patients who undergo radical cystectomy.

STRENGTHS AND LIMITATIONS: This study has several key strengths. Investigation into women's sexual function and dysfunction addresses a gap in understanding of this component of women's health-related quality of life after radical cystectomy, which represents an unmet need. The large number of interviews conducted as well as the in-depth information obtained through one-on-one interviews are additional strengths. This study also has limitations, including possible shortcomings of telephone interviews compared with in-person interviews. However, telephone interviews were beneficial because the interviews took place during the COVID-19 pandemic and spared patients from extra visits or from having to travel long distances to the respective medical centers. Other possible limitations were that patients may have been reluctant to share all of their experiences and that patients who underwent urostomies, also termed ileal conduits, were overrepresented in this study compared with women who underwent continent urine diversions, which allow greater control over urine output.

CONCLUSION: Broadening the understanding of sexual health beyond sexual intercourse to encompass sexuality and self-pleasure can provide clinicians, patients, and their families with more effective preparation and strategies to care for an essential aspect of their wellbeing.

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