Teens, cancer and sexuality focus of new study by Calgary researcher

For the first time, a University of Calgary researcher is looking at sexuality and cancer in young adults.

Coping with cancer and sexuality in vulnerable teen years a challenge 'often overlooked'

Victoria Boehm, who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma when she was 16. (Photo submitted by Victoria Boehm)

One-of-a-kind research in Calgary is looking at how boyfriends and girlfriends are affected when a teen is diagnosed with cancer.

Sexuality and cancer in young adults and the vulnerable teen years is a topic that hasn't been studied before, according to Nancy Moules, a professor in the Faculty of Nursing at the University of Calgary.  

"The focus is on treating the cancer, getting them well, saving their lives and not a lot of attention to the fact that they are still developing sexual beings," Moules said.

It's something that Victoria Boehm, diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma when she was just 16, has experienced. 

Nancy Moules, nursing professor at the University of Calgary, is looking for volunteers to take part in a study on young adults and teens coping with cancer and sexuality. (Jennifer Lee/CBC)

"You feel like crap from the chemo. Your hair is gone. You are bloated and fat because of the prednisone that you are taking.... You don't feel pretty," she said.

Moules, who holds the Kids Cancer Care Foundation Chair in Child and Family Cancer Care, is looking at several aspects of the issue, from the impact on patients and support they need, to young relationships.

Who wants to be the jerk who breaks up with the guy or girl wth cancer?- Nancy Moules , nursing professor

"This could be your great love and you could be suffering hugely. But who's there to support you? So what we're looking for is a sensitivity around how it's affecting boyfriends and girlfriends."

One of her studies looks at how boyfriends and girlfriends cope when they are often overlooked by health-care workers and family members.

"Who wants to be the jerk who breaks up with the guy or girl wth cancer? So sometimes do they stay together in a way they would normally not have?"

It's hard enough being a teen involved in a relationship. But cancer can add complications, says Moules.

"You know she's just the girlfriend, right? So she gets left out of the family meetings. She doesn't get consulted. But you could be suffering," she said.

The issue is personal and sensitive, and it can be difficult for people to talk about, so Moules has had trouble finding volunteers for the study.

"Interestingly enough we're having a hard time recruiting for it," she said. 

"Be that it's a sensitive topic or that it just isn't reaching the right people. Perhaps people have moved on so they're not in the world of cancer anymore so they're not going to hear about the study."

People interested in volunteering for the study can find more information at Kids Cancer Care Foundation of Alberta.

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