Physicians: Don’t ignore sexuality in your dying patients


I have a long history of being interested in conversations that others avoid. In medical school, I felt that we didn’t talk enough about death, so I organized a lecture series on end-of-life care for my fellow students. Now, as a sexual medicine specialist, I have other conversations from which many medical providers shy away. So, buckle up! Here’s a topic that rarely emerges in medical care: sexuality at the end of life.

A key question in palliative care is: How do you want to live the life you have left? And where does the wide range of human pleasures fit in? In her book The Pleasure Zone, sex therapist Stella Resnick describes eight kinds of pleasure:

  • pain relief
  • play, humor, movement, and sound
  • mental
  • emotional
  • sensual
  • spiritual
  • primal (just being)
  • sexual

At the end of life, both medically and culturally, we pay attention to many of these pleasures. But sexuality is often ignored.

Sexuality – which can be defined as the experience of oneself as a sexual being – may include how sex is experienced in relationships or with oneself, sexual orientation, body image, gender expression and identity, as well as sexual satisfaction and pleasure. People may have different priorities at different times regarding their sexuality, but sexuality is a key aspect of feeling fully alive and human across the lifespan. At the end of life, sexuality, sexual expression, and physical connection may play even more important roles than previously.

‘I just want to be able to have sex with my husband again’

Z was a 75-year-old woman who came to me for help with vaginal stenosis. Her cancer treatments were not going well. I asked her one of my typical questions: “What does sex mean to you?”

Sexual pleasure was “glue” – a critical way for her to connect with her sense of self and with her husband, a man of few words. She described transcendent experiences with partnered sex during her life. Finally, she explained, she was saddened by the idea of not experiencing that again before she died.

As medical providers, we don’t all need to be sex experts, but our patients should be able to have open and shame-free conversations with us about these issues at all stages of life. Up to 86% of palliative care patients want the chance to discuss their sexual concerns with a skilled clinician, and many consider this issue important to their psychological well-being. And yet, 91% reported that sexuality had not been addressed in their care.

In a Canadian study of 10 palliative care patients (and their partners), all but one felt that their medical providers should initiate conversations about sexuality and the effect of illness on sexual experience. They felt that this communication should be an integral component of care. The one person who disagreed said it was appropriate for clinicians to ask patients whether they wanted to talk about sexuality.

Before this study, sexuality had been discussed with only one participant. Here’s the magic part: Several of the patients reported that the study itself was therapeutic. This is my clinical experience as well. More often than not, open and shame-free clinical discussions about sexuality led to patients reflecting: “I’ve never been able to say this to another person, and now I feel so much better.”

One study of palliative care nurses found that while the nurses acknowledged the importance of addressing sexuality, their way of addressing sexuality followed cultural myths and norms or relied on their own experience rather than knowledge-based guidelines. Why? One explanation could be that clinicians raised and educated in North America probably did not get adequate training on this topic. We need to do better.

Second, cultural concepts that equate sexuality with healthy and able bodies who are partnered, young, cisgender, and heterosexual make it hard to conceive of how to relate sexuality to other bodies. We’ve been steeped in the biases of our culture.

Some medical providers avoid the topic because they feel vulnerable, fearful that a conversation about sexuality with a patient will reveal something about themselves. Others may simply deny the possibility that sexual function changes in the face of serious illness or that this could be a priority for their patients. Of course, we have a million other things to talk about – I get it.

Views on sex and sexuality affect how clinicians approach these conversations as well. A study of palliative care professionals described themes among those who did and did not address the topic. The professionals who did not discuss sexuality endorsed a narrow definition of sex based on genital sexual acts between two partners, usually heterosexual. Among these clinicians, when the issue came up, patients had raised the topic. They talked about sex using jokes and euphemisms (“are you still enjoying ‘good moments’ with your partner?”), perhaps to ease their own discomfort.

On the other hand, professionals who more frequently discussed sexuality with their patients endorsed a more holistic concept of sexuality: including genital and nongenital contact as well as nonphysical components like verbal communication and emotions. These clinicians found sexuality applicable to all individuals across the lifespan. They were more likely to initiate discussions about the effect of medications or illness on sexual function and address the need for equipment, such as a larger hospital bed.

I’m hoping that you might one day find yourself in the second group. Our patients at the end of life need our help in accessing the full range of pleasure in their lives. We need better medical education on how to help with sexual concerns when they arise (an article for another day), but we can start right now by simply initiating open, shame-free sexual health conversations. This is often the most important therapeutic intervention.

Dr. Kranz, Clinical Assistant Professor of Obstetrics/Gynecology and Family Medicine, University of Rochester (N.Y.) Medical Center, has disclosed no relevant financial relationships.

A version of this article first appeared on

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