A few of us here at WomanLab have the unique privilege to work closely with patients in the Program In Integrative Sexual Medicine (PRISM) clinic. In my role as a patient educator (more about what this means here), I sit in on the clinical visit and listen to each woman’s unique story. I’ve been lucky to hear these stories and to have learned so much from the women I meet each week in clinic.
The striking thing about our time in clinic is that although we see women in a sterile, fluorescent medical setting, each week we hear their stories that are filled with emotion draw out the various colors and depths of each woman’s unique experience. This is what is often missing from medical encounters – there’s increasing pressure to balance efficiency with patient-centered care, and as a result most patients spend between 11 and 30 minutes with their physician (among out-patient visits). The brevity of these encounters, and the rush to cover all of the bases, leads to the loss of patient stories.
In some cases (say, a routine annual exam or follow-up visit), both patient and provider might prefer the short visit. But, when it comes to discussing sexual function concerns, 10 or 30 minutes is simply not enough.
Why not? Because a woman’s sexual life involves much more than her physiology. It involves everything from how well-rested she is, to how much privacy she has at home to be intimate with herself or her partner, to her ability to access psychosocial support to help manage stress and anxiety, and more.
There are common threads among the stories we hear because so many women with cancer experience changes to sexual function. Beyond the common complaints of loss of desire or pain, each woman we’ve met has a distinctive and important story. These are stories of how they met their partner, how their relationship changed because of the cancer diagnosis, even some of their greatest worries and fears mixed with the poignant silver-linings. Over the course of our first hour with these women, we’re able to form a more-holistic picture of who they are independent of their cancer diagnosis or treatment, and their values. There are sometimes tears, sometimes laughter and often details shared that had previously been forgotten or overlooked, or that didn’t seem relevant either to the cancer diagnosis or to sexual function. There is a lot that we, the patient educators/residents/PRISM director, learn from these women.
What I’ve learned most recently is the value in hearing others’ stories. I’ve also experienced how profound it can be to hear someone’s story who reminds you of your own – how this can be validating, and can serve as a source of hope and comfort. Whether the story you hear is straightforward, with no embellishments, whether it’s angry, or humorous. There’s much to be gained by hearing another’s story and, as scary as it may be, from telling your own.
If you’re looking for a place to start, check out this post that highlights a video from one of Dr. Lindau’s patients. If you’d like to hear more, or to share your story with us, contact firstname.lastname@example.org.
Edited by Megan DePumpo