Dr. Daniela Wittmann, an Assistant Professor in the University of Michigan’s Department of Urology, is a psychotherapist, educator, and researcher particularly interested in developing and testing interventions that support couples’ sexual recovery after cancer.
Prostatepedia spoke with her about the issues men with prostate cancer and their loved ones face.
How did you come to work with cancer survivors?
Dr. Daniela Wittmann: About 35 years ago, I became a pediatric oncology social worker. That really formed my career, because I felt it was such important work. I liked working with cancer patients. I was working with people facing a significant crisis in their lives. There are many families applying their strengths to a challenging life situation and mastering it. It was very inspiring.
About 10 years ago, there was an opening in the Department of Urology at the University of Michigan. They wanted to open a prostate cancer survivorship program and they were looking for a sex therapist. I thought that would be a fascinating area to work in. I applied for and got the job and trained as a sex therapist. The rest is history. It became a passion. I now have a passion for sexual health in cancer.
Are there some issues that cancer patients face that are unique?
Dr. Wittmann: Yes. There is loss and grief. When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you worry about survival. You also worry about quality of life and what you might lose as a result of cancer treatment. That is the first issue every cancer patient faces.
The other issue that everybody faces is the impact on your family. Part of the quality of life is sexual health. I’ve learned that this is not just an issue for prostate cancer patients but for all cancer patients affected by cancer treatment in that area.
Are there some issues that breast and prostate cancer patients face that other cancer patients do not?
Dr. Wittmann: Yes. For most men, prostate cancer is a highly survivable disease. Quality of life becomes a huge topic.
Not so long ago, we analyzed long-term survivorship data in Michigan and found that the three top issues concerning prostate cancer patients were: fear of recurrence, the impact on their families and partners; and the management of long-term side effects. Of those long-term side effects, sexual function was the most problematic.
Do you think that caregiver issues come up more in the prostate cancer world than in other cancers?
Dr. Wittmann: No, they are fairly similar and come up in the same way.
The complication for prostate cancer patients is that the role of the cancer caregiver intersects with the role of a sexual partner. Sometimes, it’s difficult for caregivers to navigate this complex role. For the most part, partners really don’t have anyone to talk to about this. It’s an intimate area of life. People don’t necessarily talk to their friends and relatives about it.
Providers, generally speaking, don’t address it. It becomes an area of sorrow, sadness, and helplessness for partners. Although many partners are good at problem solving and many couples work it out, there are also many who don’t find a solution.
How do you work with prostate cancer patients and caregivers?
Dr. Wittmann: At the University of Michigan our program is designed to address both men and their partners. You can’t really address the men alone because their partners are very involved. Men want them to be involved; the partners want to be involved.
We start with a preoperative education where men who are about to be treated for prostate cancer and their partners come in for a two-hour seminar. Our multidisciplinary team presents information about surgery outcomes, side effects, and rehabilitation. We have a discussion at the end. We have anywhere between 15-25 couples and some single men in the audience.
After surgery, the men and their partners are invited to talk with a nurse practitioner. They get a physical and an evaluation of their functional recovery. Then they talk to me about the support that they need to maintain sexual intimacy as they’re recovering erectile function.
Some are followed on an as-needed basis. Others are followed every few months.
It is really difficult for men and couples to gauge if their own recovery is typical. We can give them some perspective and problem solve together. A small proportion of men asked for more intensive follow-up. Some have preexisting issues either in the emotional or sexual relationship that I can address with sex therapy. A few men are followed individually.
Do you have any thoughts or any advice for men who don’t have access to a program like this?
Dr. Wittmann: Yes. There are some resources that are potentially helpful. The American Association of Sexuality Educators, Counselors, and Therapists is an organization of people trained as sex therapists. They list good sex therapists on their website with a map of the United States. You can click on it and find a sex therapist in your local area.
Malecare has resources for heterosexual and homosexual men with prostate cancer.
If you’re in a cancer center, there may be a social worker who can work with you, or a nurse who has some knowledge about sexual health. Many nurse practitioners are quite well versed.
Any last thoughts for patients?
Dr. Wittmann: People can sometimes get very upset, sad, anxious, and even depressed about these issues, so finding a mental health provider in your area can really help. Some can also help solve problems with sexual health or find qualified providers who can, so definitely reach out.
Don’t feel that this is something you should solve on your own. There are resources out there. If your immediate physician, nurse, or nurse practitioner doesn’t know them, maybe a mental health provider will. Then, go online to find the resources that I just mentioned; these are good, vetted resources.