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Your cancer sex Rx

Expert tips, tools and tricks to help you reboot your post-cancer body and rekindle intimacy after cancer treatment

July 29, 2016 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Sex Rx illo

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: This is the second of a two-part series on the sexual aftermath of cancer treatment (read Part 1 here). Please join us Aug. 4 at 10 a.m. PT for a Twitter chat about “Sex After Cancer,” where nurse practitioner Leslie Heron will answer your questions. The chat will highlight and expand on some of the topics covered in this series. Use the hashtag #ChatFredHutch to join the conversation on Twitter.

Sex after cancer can be complicated.

Toxic treatment saves your skin in some ways, but totally messes with it in others. Your confidence and sex drive may disappear so fast you’ll half expect to see pictures of them on a milk carton. Your body may become terra incognita almost overnight — completely numb in some areas, hypersensitive in others. Surgery, chemo, radiation and anti-hormone therapy keep you alive, yes, but often there’s a cost: your energy, your erections, your tiny tingles and your big O.   

Unfortunately, cancer treatment’s sexual toxicity has become the elephant in the bedroom — and the doctor’s office. Patients, partners and practitioners don’t always want, or even know how, to discuss it with each other.

“We don’t even talk about sex when it’s going well so how can we talk about it when it’s not?” said Leslie Heron, nurse practitioner with the Survivorship Clinic at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance, the treatment arm of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

We know it’s tough to talk about this stuff. But we also know there are ways to counteract the collateral damage and replenish and replace that which Mother Nature gave you and treatment took away. Read on for a few tips and tools — some PG-13 — to help you hack your post-cancer sex life. Herewith, your cancer sex Rx.

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The sexual aftermath of cancer

From impotence to ‘chemopause’ to missing body parts, treatment side effects can mess with patients’ sex lives — why don’t we talk about it more?

July 28, 2016 | By Diane Mapes / Fred Hutch News Service

The elephant in the bedroom

Sex after cancer treatment can be complicated and many times, patients, their partners and even their providers don't talk about it. It's become the elephant in the bedroom.

Illustration by Kimberly Carney / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: This is the first of a two-part series on the sexual aftermath of cancer treatment. Click here to read Part 2 with expert tips from nurse practitioner Leslie Heron and others. Also, please join us Aug. 4 at 10 a.m. PT for a Twitter chat about “Sex After Cancer,” where Heron will answer your questions. The chat will highlight and expand on some of the topics covered in this series. Use the hashtag #ChatFredHutch to join the conversation on Twitter.

Sex was the furthest thing from my mind when a breast cancer surgeon told me I needed a double mastectomy five years ago.

Maybe it shouldn’t have been.

No matter what kind of cancer you have, the surgery and treatment you go through will have a profound effect on all aspects of your life, including your sex life. From changes in body image to erectile dysfunction to excised bits and pieces, things just don’t quite work the same for many after a cancer diagnosis. But for whatever reason, most of us talk about the mechanics of sex about as readily as we talk about the mechanics of other normal, healthy functions like, say, pooping.

My doctors didn’t bring it up, so neither did I.

Diane Mapes

Writer and breast cancer survivor Diane Mapes

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Luckily, I’d reached out to other patients so I had an inkling of what was to come. I knew that even a nipple-sparing mastectomy would eliminate two key players on the team, leaving my chest a dead zone — no nerves, no feeling, nothing. But not all breast cancer patients know this going in. I still hear horror stories about women who have mastectomies then turn to their doctors in puzzlement when their skin and/or nipples remain numb.

Losing my breasts and sensation was just the beginning. Chemo, radiation and tamoxifen pretty much neutered me, tamping down that sweet little flame of desire that flickers within us all. I’m sure my oncologist went through all the potential side effects before I started treatment, but all I heard was hair loss, nausea and radiation burns.

Hair grows back, though. Libidos, not so much.

The sad truth is along with saving your life (knock wood), cancer treatment can squelch your libido, make sex painful (or impossible), mess with your ability to orgasm and even render your private parts numb — and that goes for both men and women. It’s not a given and it’s all a matter of degrees, but it happens. A lot.

Chemo and radiation can wreak havoc with the soft, deliciously sensitive parts of your body, damaging the mucous membranes in your mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and yes, vagina, penis and anus. Radiation can also burn your skin, fry your ovaries and sperm and turn soft, sensitive tissue thick and tough. Anti-hormone treatments, the bane of breast and prostate cancer patients, put a kibosh on intimacy in about 17 different ways — even cuddling is out when hot flashes make people feel like they’re going to spontaneously combust. And all three reduce blood flow, which keeps our private bits plump and moist and, well, sensational — the very stuff of sex. Without it, these delicate tissues atrophy.

Cancer cuts us to our sexual quick. Men may struggle with impotence, women may lose their natural lubrication and most everybody’s joy button is off, thanks to the physiological, emotional and/or psychological changes wrought by diagnosis and treatment. It’s hard to feel sexy when you’re suddenly wearing surgical drains or a colostomy bag or your prostate meds have given you man boobs. And then there’s that whole death thing.

But it’s not just patients with prostate or colon or other below-the-belt cancers who suffer. Anyone who’s been through cancer treatment can experience a sexual sea change, even those who’ve gone through treatment for leukemia as kids.

And surprise! Nobody wants to talk about it: not doctors, not patients, not even their partners. Sex after cancer has become the elephant in the bedroom.

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'Every basic scientist's dream'

How Dr. Barry Stoddard's lab work helped create an experimental drug for glioblastoma — the same disease that killed his mother

July 27, 2016 | By Rachel Tompa / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Barry Stoddard and mom Judy

Dr. Barry Stoddard and his mom, Judy, taken when she was undergoing brain cancer treatment, about six months before her death.

Courtesy of Dr. Barry Stoddard

When his mother was diagnosed with glioblastoma 20 years ago, Dr. Barry Stoddard knew the trajectory she’d almost certainly face in the months ahead.

Stoddard, a protein engineer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, had very recently seen that path in a friend and colleague — Dr. Harold Weintraub, one of the founders of the Hutch’s Basic Sciences Division, where Stoddard leads his laboratory team. Weintraub died of the same rare but aggressive brain cancer exactly a year before his mother’s diagnosis.

Judy Stoddard was a warm and loving mother and grandmother, a well-respected but tough school teacher, and she cooked a mean chicken cacciatore, her son said. She was upbeat about her disease and sure she’d beat it, but she lived only 14 months past her diagnosis. She died in 1997, at 59 years old, on her 38th wedding anniversary.

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The legacy of Nkosi Johnson

At AIDS 2016, a South African pediatrician and Fred Hutch vaccine researcher pays tribute to a young HIV hero

July 25, 2016 | By Dr. Glenda Gray

Nkosi Johnson

Nkosi Johnson at the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.

File photo by Themba Hadebe / AP

Editor’s note: Now president of the South African Medical Research Council and a principal investigator for the Fred Hutch-based global HIV Vaccine Trials Network, Dr. Glenda Gray spent much of her career as a pediatrician at an enormous hospital in the township of Soweto. As a clinician, researcher and activist, she successfully fought to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission. Here she recalls the days before prevention or treatment was available, and she remembers one child in particular who received international acclaim after addressing the 2000 AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa. Gray gave this talk to a gathering of colleagues from that time attending the 2016 AIDS conference, held again in Durban.    

Nkosi Johnson died a year after the 2000 Durban AIDS Conference, and his premature death was probably one of the only AIDS deaths in a child that got noticed.

At that time, he was one of the 70,000 children getting infected each year through mother-to-child transmission in South Africa. His life was and is a tribute to all HIV-infected children who battle this disease in secret and with shame.

At the time of Nkosi’s death at age 12, Nelson Mandela referred to him as an “icon of the struggle for life.” That so aptly describes the role that Nkosi played, and it symbolizes his urgency to live at a time when antiretroviral drugs were not yet available in Africa.

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AIDS 2016: Faces and voices from an ongoing pandemic

Beyond HIV treatment to vaccines and a cure, calls to finish the job — and leave no one behind

July 25, 2016 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

AIDS 2016

The closing session of AIDS 2016, the biennial meeting of the International AIDS Society, in Durban, South Africa, drew about 18,000 scientists, world leaders, celebrities, advocates and people living with HIV from 180 countries.

By Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: Fred Hutch News Service reporter Mary Engel and photographer Robert Hood are in Durban, South Africa, covering the news from the 21st International AIDS Conference.

DURBAN, South Africa — Maurine Murenga learned she had HIV when she was pregnant with her first child. In was 2002, and the antiretroviral drugs that were saving lives in developed countries were barely available, and certainly not affordable, in her native Kenya.

She assumed she would die. Her biggest fear was how.

Maurine Murenga

Maurine Murenga

By Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

“I saw the kind of pain people went through and heard about people who were found in their homes five days after they died, with their children still beside them,” she told a packed hall of scientists, policymakers, advocates and other people with HIV attending the AIDS 2016 conference last week in Durban, South Africa.

Murenga survived, thanks first to a group of women, also HIV positive, who embraced and supported her; and then to the arrival the following year of lifesaving drugs for both her and the son who was born with HIV. The political will to bring antiretroviral drugs to poor and low-income countries had been forged the only other time the International AIDS Society had convened in sub-Saharan Africa, also in Durban, in 2000.

Now on the staff of the International Community of Women Living with HIV, Murenga traveled to Durban in part to celebrate how much has changed in the intervening years.  But she also was there to tell conference attendees — and the world ­— of how much has not.

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Good News at Fred Hutch

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements

July 22, 2016

Dr. Athea Vichas

Dr. Athea Vichas

Photo courtesy of Dr. Athea Vichas

Two young scientists earn first Hutch United fellowships

It’s a boost for young science — and a boon for diversity.

Dr. Athea Vichas and Vasundhara Sridharan have received the inaugural Hutch United fellowships, an initiative to back underrepresented researchers and bolster the retention and recruitment of lab talent at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Each recipient said the fellowships — which provide $100,000 in annual direct costs — would advance their science and elevate Fred Hutch’s stature as a highly inclusive organization.

“Earning it is an incredible honor,” said Vichas, a postdoctoral fellow in the Moens Lab, where researchers study development of the vertebrate brain, including genes involved in cancer progression.

“The presence of Hutch United speaks to the priorities the center has placed to allow underrepresented groups within the STEM field to not only feel included and welcome but also supported,” Vichas said.

The advancement of biomedical research, Vichas said, requires a diverse and collaborative environment that encourages scientists to investigate, question and learn. As an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon, Vichas co-led workshops through the school’s LGBT center and spoke on community panels “to share my personal experience as an out lesbian,” she said. Vichas also volunteers on the Hutch United Mentoring Network committee.

“Fostering really great mentoring is going to be key to retention and recruitment of these students,” Vichas said. “Right now, without that, you can easily walk into a STEM field and look around a room and not see anybody who is like you.”

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