Sexual intimacy is an important quality-of-life issue for cancer patients, but it’s a difficult subject to talk about – even for nurses.
Freyja Herzog, who just earned her bachelor’s degree from the Washington State University College of Nursing, wanted to do something about that.
She researched and developed a brochure and training seminar that she presented to oncology nurses at Cancer Care Northwest and Providence Health Care this spring. Herzog is a member of the WSU Honors College, and the project served as her culminating thesis.
That level of work was “really very rigorous for an Honors undergraduate student,” said her faculty advisor on the project, Assistant Professor Andra Davis of the WSU College of Nursing in Vancouver.
Herzog decided on the topic after running across it in a nursing class at WSU.
“The more research I did, the more I noticed this large gap in care toward intimacy,” she said. “There really was no attention paid to partnership and the support system that intimacy can bring patients.”
Through a literature review, she found that the gap in addressing sexual health is attributed to unfamiliarity or discomfort with the topic. Some nurses reported they believed physicians were discussing sexual well–being with their patients. Others said they waited for patients to bring up the subject. But patients reported that they preferred having such conversations with health care providers they felt closest to, who are often nurses.
Herzog sought out evidence-based screening tools and discussion models, and created a brochure and presentation based on those, complete with a role-playing exercise. She gave presentations to 50 oncology nurses at Providence Health Care and Cancer Care Northwest, and had participants fill out pre- and post-presentation surveys.
Public speaking didn’t faze her, but it was intimidating to present information on oncology nursing to professionals in the field, she said.
“I think the biggest message we were trying to get across is, this doesn’t have to be super personal,” Herzog said. “It’s just like any other screening or assessment a nurse does. You ask, ‘Is this a problem for you? If so, let’s refer you to someone who can treat that problem.’”
Survey results showed an improvement in self-confidence scores among participants. Said one participant, “I would like to implement the assessment with all of our patients and have all my staff start these discussions.”
Davis, her faculty advisor, said she was proud of Herzog for taking on such a far-reaching project as an undergraduate. “She had decided (through her research) that this was an area of care that we don’t, as nurses, really assess well, and she was right about that,” Davis said.
Post-graduation, Herzog is job-hunting and hopes to work as a nurse for a few years, then pursue a graduate nursing degree. She didn’t always dream of being a nurse, but a WSU honors advisor steered her toward the program. “The more I do it, the more I realize it’s a really great fit for me,” she said. “I feel like I will contribute and that’s important to me.”