In sickness and in health: patients with head and neck cancer and their view on sexuality and body image

Heleen Melissant

Lotte Mikkers, Amsterdam, March 18, 2021

Unfortunately, sexuality is not a problem-free zone for everyone. Struggling with sexuality or body image can be very difficult. Especially when you have other serious concerns about your health, for instance people who struggle with head and neck cancer. Heleen Melissant (PhD student) conducted research among patients with head and neck cancer (HNC) and about their sexuality and body image. Because your health is more than just your disease. We wanted to know everything about her research, so we asked her all about it.

Conducting research about people with head and neck cancer must be tough at some point. What made you want to conduct this research?

I think looking at the quality of life of patients with cancer is very interesting.I wanted to look at more than just the side effects, but also how a disease such as head and neck cancer affects your life - with all related aspects. The quality of life is of course an incredibly broad concept: it can be social, psychological or physical. Aspects that all pique my interest. In addition, I’m interested in the effect of such a disease in the field of relationships and sexuality. Moreover, I think that this specific subject is underexposed – not much research has been conducted about this specific subject. A shame, because suffering from a disease like HNC, can have a massive impact on sexual desire and pleasure as well.

 Can you tell us about the main findings?

Summing up the main findings from your dissertation is hard to do. But to give it a try: We looked at how often reduced sexuality or body image problems occur. 13% to 20% of the patients had problems with their body image, in a negative way. In the case of sexuality, we examined how this occurs over time, and it became very clear that the impact on sexuality was the greatest shortly after the treatment – not during. We also looked at who is really at risk. Why does one suffer from it and the other doesn’t?

 13% to 20% of the examined participants were found to have disturbed body image. How would you explain this?

This could be because people experience problems with their appearances. I’m not only talking about aesthetic characteristics, but also some bodily functions that have changed. Consider for example that someone has had surgery on his vocal cords and therefore has more difficulty speaking. This is something you will naturally be confronted with every day and can feel negative about.

 Can you explain the relationship between a negative body-image among people and sexual problems?

Studies show that this is closely related. If you don't feel comfortable about your own body, it may well be that you don't feel sexually attractive towards your partner either. You feel less sexual. This link emerged less strongly from my dissertation than in other research. The link was found, but the effect wasn’t very convincing. I think this requires more research into how that relates to the specific group of head and neck cancer patients.

 This interview is part of a series in which we try to gain learnings from those in the know. This was the first part of our trilogy interview with Heleen Melissant about her dissertation among HNC patients and the effect on their sexuality and body image. We strongly believe this knowledge can empower women in their journey called sexuality. So please share this article with those around you and those who you believe that deserve it. If you want to gain early access to these articles and more, please sign up to our newsletter below.