Cancer care and sexual health: different for who is different?

As final part of my studies ‘Applied Psychology’, I (Mina) chose to zoom in on cancer care and sexual health. During my internship at ‘Kom op tegen Kanker’, my interest in this topic was sparked. I collaborated with a Brussels support group for (ex-)cancer patients with a migration background, named ‘Inak‘. I quickly noticed a lack of data on cancer care and sexual health among minorities. According to me, it was high time to make the voices of female (ex-)cancer patients with Moroccan and Turkish roots heard as well. I decided to conduct in-depth interviews with these women to map their care needs. The target group included women between 45 and 54 years old. For me, it was obvious to take into account the ‘layers’ of their identity. The fact that I am a Muslima and have Moroccan roots myself seemed to lower the threshold. As a native researcher, I tried to find out whether gender, culture, ethnicity and religion play a role for these women in discussing sexual health with healthcare providers. Follow me on a walk through some interesting findings of my research. 😊

Ethnic (in)equality

I made a remarkable observation during a literature review on breast cancer. In Morocco and Turkey, it appears that breast cancer occurs most frequently in women between the ages of 40 and 49. I have not been able to find underlying reasons in this study. I did learn, however, that early detection for breast cancer in Morocco and Turkey therefore starts from the age of 40 onwards, compared to 50 in Belgium. Although I did not limit myself to one type of cancer during my research, most of the women I interviewed were (ex-)breast cancer patients, as expected. Their average age at diagnosis was 44 years, which is remarkably young if you compare it to most Western-European countries. To ensure more ethnic equality in cancer care, it would be advisable to investigate whether ethnicity may play a role here. After all, unfortunately, the Belgian screening and prevention program seems to take little or no account of ethnic differences.

Taboo for who?

The question remains for whom discussing sexual health is the largest stumbling block. Is this most difficult for healthcare providers or rather for the patients with Moroccan and Turkish roots themselves? Previous research has shown that healthcare providers experience language, ethnicity, culture and religion as important obstacles in this respect. This is also confirmed by the women in this study. Being women of the second generation of Moroccan and Turkish migrants, they have sufficient command of the Dutch language and necessary health skills. Nevertheless, healthcare providers do make assumptions about religion and culture. Interviewed women complained about their “indecisiveness to act” in the field of sexuality. The healthcare providers seemed to assume that Muslimas would not be into a conversation about sexuality, which was clearly disproved by the interviewed women themselves. These women just seem to have a very down-to-earth view on sexuality. They denounced the fact that they grew up in a taboo or hshoema culture. For example, they indicated that there was sometimes little room at home to talk openly about such topics. As adult women, they are now leaving this hshoema culture and refusing to deal with it. They emphasize the possibility to openly talk about sexuality within their religion. And what’s more? They want and need healthcare providers to openly discuss this with them.

More gender and religion sensitive care means more attention to the person behind the patient

See me as a woman first  

This study also shows that women of Moroccan and Turkish origin mainly want to be seen and heard as women after a cancer diagnosis. Therefore, putting femininity and ‘being woman’ first is a crucial element in their care process. They want more attention for the impact of the disease on their body image and relationship. There is still a lot of room for help! 😊

The more the ‘layers’ of identity of these women are taken into account, the better the quality of care 

Religion sensitive psychosocial support

For female (ex-)cancer patients of Turkish and Moroccan origin, religion appears to play a greater role after diagnosis. They draw support and courage from this and use it as a coping strategy. A tailor-made care offer for Muslimas is clearly regarded as an added value in terms of psychosocial support regarding sexuality after cancer. For example, some women indicated that they felt more comfortable receiving help from Muslim psychologists. It is important here that these preferences are not hard requirements, but rather ask for acceptance without prejudice. There still seems a lot of work to be done, but none of this is unfeasible. Don’t let the voices of these women go unheard. Let’s stand up for everyone’s rights and needs! 😊

Who am I?
Hi! My name is Mina Labsir. I am a 45 year old woman with Moroccan roots. I have been teaching Islamic religion since the late 1990s. Since I truly value lifelong learning, I chose to study ‘Applied Psychology’ at a later age, with a specialization in clinical psychology. I have always been triggered by the relation between health and disease and in particular women’s health. That interest led me to investigate sexual health among Muslimas with cancer. While doing research, I discovered Isala who, like me, advocates breaking taboos. Letting women tell their own story, that’s what I want to go for.