SPOKANE, Wash. – “Will my sex life suffer?” probably is not the first question most colon cancer patients ask their oncologists. But for some, it’s definitely on their list of concerns.

“More and more people are surviving cancer today,” said Jeanne Robison, an oncology nurse practitioner at the Rockwood Cancer Treatment Center in Spokane and a doctoral student at the WSU College of Nursing. “There’s been a real push by the national cancer organizations to focus on survivorship.”

The American Cancer Society recently granted Robison $30,000 to write her dissertation about the sexual lives of colon cancer patients.

“These American Cancer Society grants are very competitive and hard to get,” said Mel Haberman, Robison’s professor and dissertation chair.

“It means Jeanne will be recognized nationally and highly sought after in the cadre of nurse-scientists.” As for the university, he said, “it means we’ve shown that WSU Spokane has a strong potential to do outstanding cancer research.” 

A question of humanity

“I’m interested in looking at the effects of surgery and chemotherapy, particularly, on the sexual functioning of cancer survivors,” Robison said. “This question and this concern come up among patients of all ages, among patients with cancers than can and can’t be cured, because it’s a question of humanity. Sexual health is what makes us human.”

She said researchers have learned about how treatments for breast and prostate cancers affect sexual functioning. But the colon cancer question is “still quite novel,” according to Haberman. 

According to Cancer Research UK, “most people are able to have a normal sex life after having had colorectal cancer…Sometimes, radiotherapy or an operation to the rectum can affect the nerves to the sex organs. A man may not be able to get, or keep, an erection. A woman may find that sex feels different from before the treatment.” But, Robison said, “it’s different for every person.”

Study to begin next year

She hopes to start her research next year. She’s still working on the specifics of how she’ll do her study. But she plans to interview a dozen or more colon cancer patients.

She hopes to follow them from before their treatments to about six months after their surgeries or rounds of chemotherapy.

She’ll be looking for answers to the questions: Is there an impact on sexual functioning? Do things get better or is there a persistent problem?