Skip to main content

A sexual rehabilitation intervention for women with gynaecological cancer receiving radiotherapy (SPARC study): design of a multicentre randomized controlled trial

Abstract

Background

Sexual problems are frequently reported after treatment with radiotherapy (RT) for gynaecological cancer (GC), in particular after combined external beam radiotherapy and brachytherapy (EBRT+BT). Studies demonstrate that psychosexual support should include cognitive behavioural interventions and involvement of the patient’s partner, if available. Therefore, we developed a nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention, including these key components. The intervention was previously pilot-tested and results demonstrated that this intervention improves women’s sexual functioning and increases dilator compliance. The objective of the current study is to investigate the (cost-)effectiveness of the intervention compared to optimal care as usual (CAU). We expect that women who receive the intervention will report a statistically significant greater improvement in sexual functioning and – for women who receive EBRT+BT – higher compliance with dilator use, from baseline to 12 months post-RT than women who receive optimal care as usual (CAU).

Methods/design

The intervention is evaluated in the SPARC (Sexual rehabilitation Programme After Radiotherapy for gynaecological Cancer) study, a multicentre, randomized controlled trial (RCT). The primary endpoint is sexual functioning. Secondary outcomes include body image, fear of sexual activity, sexual-, treatment-related- and psychological distress, health-related quality of life and relationship satisfaction. A cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) will be conducted in which the costs of the intervention will be related to shifts in other health care costs and the impact on patient outcome. The study sample will consist of 220 women with GC treated with RT in specialized GC treatment centres (N = 10). Participants are randomized to either the intervention- or CAU control group (1:1), and within each centre stratified by type of radiotherapy (EBRT+BT vs. EBRT only) and having a partner (yes/no). All women complete questionnaires at baseline (T1) and at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months post-RT (T2, T3, T4 and T5, respectively).

Discussion

There is a need to improve sexual functioning after RT for GC. This RCT will provide evidence about the (cost-)effectiveness of a nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention. If proven effective, the intervention will be a much needed addition to care offered to GC survivors and will result in improved quality of life.

Trial registration

ClinicalTrials.gov, NCT03611517. Registered 2 August 2018.

Background

In the Netherlands, more than 4500 women are diagnosed with gynaecological cancers (GC) annually [1]. Approximately one-third of GC patients, especially those with cervical, uterine and vaginal cancers, receive radiotherapy (RT) as primary or post-surgical treatment; most often external beam radiotherapy (EBRT) with or without brachytherapy (BT). Sexual problems, such as dyspareunia, vaginal dryness and a decrease of sexual satisfaction and desire are frequently reported after treatment with RT for GC [29]. The negative effects of RT, and in particular of the combination of EBRT with BT (EBRT+BT), on sexual functioning are due to vaginal changes such as fibrosis with vaginal shortening and tightening, mucosal atrophy, and reduced flexibility and decreased lubrication of the upper vagina [10]. EBRT+BT is the standard combination for primary treatment of more advanced stages of cervical, vaginal and endometrial cancer, while postoperative BT is only added in case of involved or tight vaginal margins.

To prevent or reduce vaginal shortening and tightening during the period of fibrosis formation after EBRT+BT, it is generally recommended to use vaginal dilators for a period of 9-12 months after completion of treatment [11]. Such use may prevent or minimise vaginal stenosis with the purpose to maintain the option of vaginal penetration in the long term [11, 12]. Despite the proposed benefits of regular dilator use, most GC patients (75%) fail to use dilators regularly even after counselling and instructions for use [1316]. Frequently reported barriers to dilator use are difficulties with planning, lack of time or privacy, forgetting, and other problems in the recovery phase such as fatigue and worry [17]. To increase compliance, it is important to provide sufficient patient information tailored to the woman’s need, clear instructions and psycho-education regarding dilator use [18]. In addition, the process of recovery from cancer diagnosis and treatment and the associated physical and psychological problems is already demanding. A broader view on rehabilitation, counselling and support would be needed to help multi-dimensional recovery and increase compliance with regular dilator use.

A recent study demonstrated that GC patients treated with RT benefit from a psychosexual rehabilitation information booklet [19]. Women reported more knowledge regarding physical and psychosexual side-effects and rehabilitation options in the first 6 months post-RT than women wo received standard information materials. However, the psychosexual rehabilitation booklet did not increase compliance with dilator use. In addition to psycho-education, two studies demonstrated that a psychoeducational group intervention, including a focus on motivation to engage in regular dilator use, increased dilator compliance [15, 20]. Indicating that GC survivors could benefit from additional professional support targeting dilator use. However, such an intervention targeting dilator use only did not affect the psychosexual consequences of treatment of GC, such as decreased sexual desire, dyspareunia, diminished body image, and relationship dissatisfaction [15]. Therefore, psychosexual rehabilitation interventions should focus on preventing and reducing RT-induced vaginal changes, as well as on increasing psychosexual and relationship satisfaction [21].

Only few studies have evaluated psychosexual rehabilitation interventions – which used cognitive behavioural techniques, psycho-education and counselling – for GC survivors [2226]. Results demonstrated that women who received the psychosexual rehabilitation interventions experienced better sexual functioning, less sexual distress [23] and a decrease in sexual problems [22]. Only one of the studies actively involved the partner in the intervention and demonstrated that a couple-coping training improved sexual relationship satisfaction to a greater extent than medical information education or patient-coping training only [26].

It can be concluded that psychosexual support after treatment for GC should include motivational issues and psychosexual interventions to increase dilator compliance and improve sexual functioning. Furthermore, involvement of the partner is preferred. There is a need for a condensed, practical and (cost-)effective sexual rehabilitation intervention, consisting of psycho-education combined with elements of psychosexual-based cognitive behavioural therapy for GC patients and their partners after RT [2731]. Therefore, based on the results of our previous studies [17, 18, 21], we developed a nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention to support sexual improvement and vaginal dilator use after RT. The intervention has multiple aims: motivating women, giving tailored advice, strengthening self-management, promoting couples’ mutual coping and support processes and, for women who received EBRT+BT, providing information and coaching on use of vaginal dilators on a regular basis. The results of our pilot study regarding the feasibility of the intervention demonstrated that this intervention improved women’s sexual functioning and that it supported them in their dilator use [32]. Furthermore, the nurses who were trained and supervised to guide the intervention felt capable to support the women.

In this manuscript we present the design of the SPARC (Sexual rehabilitation Programme After Radiotherapy for gynaecological Cancer) study, a multicentre randomized controlled trial (RCT) which evaluates the (cost-)effectiveness of the nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention in improving sexual functioning and dilator use of GC patients after RT. Participants are randomized to either the intervention- or optimal care as usual (CAU) control group (1:1). We expect that women who receive the intervention will report a statistically significant greater improvement in sexual functioning and – for women who receive EBRT+BT – higher compliance with dilator use, from baseline to 12 months post-RT than women who receive CAU.

Methods

The study design and main procedures of the RCT are displayed in Fig. 1.

Fig. 1
figure 1

Overview of study procedures. *The physical examination at the 6 months follow-up visit might also be conducted by the gynaecologist (depending on the centre). BT = Brachytherapy; EBRT = External Beam Radiotherapy; GC = Gynaecological cancer; RT = Radiotherapy; T1 = Self-report baseline questionnaire, T2-5 = Self-report follow-up questionnaires

Ethical issues, safety aspects and (medical) complications

The SPARC study has been approved by the Medical Ethical Committee Leiden-Den Haag-Delft (number NL62767.058.17) and by the institutional review boards of the 10 participating GC centres (the participating GC centres are included in the Acknowledgements section). Recruitment and data collection started in August, 2018 and is still ongoing at the date of publication of this manuscript. This study is monitored on data and safety by an independent certificated study monitor. All study-related adverse events, i.e. dilator-use-related, will be recorded an reported as an adverse event. Events related to the undergone cancer treatments are not considered study-related events.

Study Sample

The study sample will consist of 220 women diagnosed with cervical, vaginal or endometrial cancer and who will receive primary or postoperative EBRT+BT (BT boost by intra-uterine and/or vaginal brachytherapy) or postoperative EBRT alone. This also includes curative treatment with EBRT+BT for local relapse after previous surgery. Participants are recruited in specialized GC treatment centres in the Netherlands. Women are eligible for study participation if they (1) are 18 years or older, (2) receive treatment with RT for GC as specified above and (3) wish to retain their sexual activity in the short- or long term. Women are excluded from study participation if they (1) are unavailable for follow-up, (2) have insufficient command of the Dutch language or (3) have a major affective disorder, psychotic disorder, substance abuse disorder or posttraumatic stress disorder resulting from abuse in the pelvic floor area and/or genitals. To ensure appropriate treatment of these women with more severe psychological and/or psychiatric problems, they are referred to a specialized psychologist/sexologist connected to the own GC centre or are advised to consult their general practitioner to be referred to a specialized psychologist/sexologist or psychiatrist.

Recruitment and randomization

The treating radiation oncologists screen potential participants with regard to the inclusion and exclusion criteria. Eligible women are informed about the background, rationale and specifics of the study protocol. Women who want to participate in the study provide written informed consent and complete a paper-and-pencil baseline questionnaire before randomization. After inclusion, participants are assigned a unique study identifier by the local data manager, which will be filled out on all questionnaires and used in the data files. Inclusion and randomization take place before the completion of RT. Participants are randomized to either the intervention- or the optimal CAU control group (1:1), and within each centre stratified by type of radiotherapy (EBRT+BT versus EBRT only) and having a partner (yes/no). The randomization is block stratified with varying block sizes, and is performed by the local data manager, using a secured web-based data-management system.

Study groups

One month after completion of RT, women in both study groups receive an information booklet. The information booklets, which contain specific information to improve knowledge and coping strategies regarding sexual rehabilitation after either EBRT+BT or EBRT only, are based on the booklet developed in the pilot study [32]. The booklets are provided in both a printed and online version. Women in both study groups who received EBRT+BT are given a dilator set and are advised to start vaginal dilation for 1 to 3 min, 2 to 3 times a week around 4 weeks after RT when the vagina is sufficiently healed [11, 18].

Training of the nurses

The intervention is conducted by oncology nurses who have completed a 50-hour study-specific training in sexology and simple cognitive behavioural interventions and the treatment protocol itself. The nurses are supervised by an experienced sexologist once per month. Every six months, the oncology nurses and their supervisors attend an additional day of training that is focused on a specific theme that is relevant for the study (i.e. vaginal stenosis and dilator use, emotional reactions after loss of participants due to cancer recurrence, and the partner relationship).

Intervention group: the nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention

The intervention consists of four one-hour face-to-face sessions at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months post-RT. These sessions are planned synchronously with women’s radiation oncologist follow-up visits. An additional session is scheduled for women who received EBRT+BT at 2 months, during which potential barriers and problems with dilator use are discussed. Furthermore, if preferred, an extra follow-up session/telephone consultation of 30 min can be scheduled between 6 and 12 months after RT. If a woman is in a relationship, the partner is invited to accompany her in the sessions.

The sexual rehabilitation intervention consists of 11 modules. A description of the content of the modules is provided in Table 1. The modules include topics such as education regarding the specific cancer diagnosis and treatment, education on the importance of regular use of vaginal dilators (if applicable), discussing potential experienced barriers to dilator use (if applicable) and lubricant use, fear of penetration with dilators (if applicable) and fear of resuming sexual activity after cancer, promoting couples’ mutual coping and support processes and addressing sexual and body image concerns. The content of the intervention is a personalized programme tailored to the participant-specific psychological, relational and somatic factors. During a session, the oncology nurse selects the specific module(s) that fits the woman’s (and her partner’s) needs. The decision tree for module selection is provided in Fig. 2.

Table 1 Description of the sexual rehabilitation intervention modules
Fig. 2
figure 2

Decision Tree intervention modules. BT = Brachytherapy; EBRT = External Beam Radiotherapy; MI = Motivational Interviewing [35]; Module 1 = Brief sexual history; Module 2 = Pain during intercourse; Module 3 = Vaginal dryness and health; Module 4 = Alternatives for intercourse; Module 5 = The partner and possible sexual problems; Module 6 = Gradual exposure towards sexual intercourse; Module 7 = Pelvic floor exercise; Module 8 = Difficulties with dilator use at home; Module 9 = Using dilators under supervision at the outpatient clinic; Module 10 = Exploring and resolving ambivalence with regard to dilator use; Module 11 = Petroleum jelly (Vaseline) tampon

All sessions will be audio-taped allowing a direct check on the oncology nurses’ adherence and competency. A random check of 30% of audio-taped sessions on adherence of the treatment protocol will be performed by two independent researchers. Furthermore, these audio-taped treatment sessions will be used for supervision purposes.

Control group: Optimal Care As Usual

All participating women are offered an information session, information booklet and a dilator set (if applicable) post-RT free of charge. Hereby, we optimized the CAU control group in our current study. Although CAU cannot be completely standardized, as the procedure is dependent on the local standard practice, it will not involve a structured, tailored nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention.

Data collection

Participants are requested to complete questionnaires prior to randomization (T1, baseline) and at 1, 3, 6, and 12 months post-RT (T2, T3, T4 and T5, respectively, see Fig. 1). The T1 questionnaire is completed on paper. The T2-T5 study questionnaires can be completed either online (a link is sent by email) or on paper, depending on the preference of the participant. An online reminder is sent to participants who do not complete and return the questionnaire within one week. If a participant does not complete the questionnaire in the week following the reminder, she is contacted by telephone. Vaginal symptoms, assessed by standardized clinical examination during a physical examination, are synchronously collected at the timepoints of the T1-T5 questionnaires through Case Report Forms (CRFs) and medical records. For women who withdraw early from study participation, data collected until the moment of withdrawal will be available for analysis.

Measures

Sociodemographic and clinical data

Sociodemographic data are obtained via the T1 questionnaire and include age, relational status, living situation, having children, education, and work status. Clinical data are collected from medical records and through CRFs at T1 and include date of gynaecological cancer diagnosis, type of gynaecological cancer (cervical/endometrial/vaginal) and characteristics (histological type, Fédération Internationale de Gynécologie et d’Obstétrique (FIGO) stadium, lymph node metastases), treatment(s) received (surgery, chemotherapy, type of radiotherapy, hypothermia), height and weight, and smoking. In addition, World Health Organisation (WHO) performance status, menopausal status and medication use (including hormonal replacement therapy) are collected from medical records and through CRFs at T1-T5.

Outcome measures

Detailed descriptions of the outcome measures are provided in Table 2. The primary outcome measure is a standardized patient-reported outcome measure (PROM) assessing sexual functioning (Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) [36]). The secondary outcome measures include PROMs assessing vaginal symptoms and body image concerns (European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire-Gynaecological Cancer Module (EORTC QLQ-CX24) [37]), fear of coital and non-coital sexual activity (Fear of Sexuality Questionnaire (FSQ) [38]), sexual distress (Female Sexual Distress Scale (FSDS) [39]), treatment-related distress (Impact of Event Scale (IES) [40]), generic health-related quality of life (European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire Core 30 (EORTC QLQ-C30) [41]), urological and gastrointestinal symptoms and sexual interest (European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire-Endometrial Cancer Module (EORTC QLQ-EN24) [42]), psychological distress (Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) [43]), and relationship satisfaction (Maudsley Marital Questionnaire (MMQ) [44]). To minimize respondent burden, the T1-questionnaire includes only the FSFI [36] and the FSDS [39].

Table 2 Study outcome measures and corresponding questionnaires

Additionally, the secondary outcome measures include a 4-item questionnaire for women treated with EBRT+BT regarding the frequency of dilator use: (1) ‘How often have you used the dilator in the past month?’, (2) ‘Which size(s) dilator(s) did you use?’, (3) ‘How often did you have other kinds of penetration (including penile penetration) in the past month?’, and (4) ‘How often did you use petroleum jelly (Vaseline) tampons?’.

Furthermore, the following vaginal symptoms are assessed by standardized clinical examination for all participants: dryness, shortening/tightening, mucositis, discharge, blood loss, fibrosis, atrophy, pain, length (in millimetre) and dyspareunia. Vaginal symptoms will be recorded using the Common Terminology Criteria Sexual rehabilitation after RT for gynaecological cancers for Adverse Events (CTCAE), version 4.037.

Cost-effectiveness

A cost-effectiveness analysis (CEA) will be conducted in which the costs of the intervention will be related to shifts in other health care costs and the impact on patient outcome. A cost-price analysis will be performed for the nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention (including training, counselling hours and materials). Other healthcare use will be limited to sexuality-related health care utilization (including gynaecologist, radiation oncologist, general practitioner, psychologist and sexologist) and medication use, estimated from patient reports and valued using standard prices.

Estimated costs will be related to the impact on the number of women with sexual improvement after 12 months (costs-per-improved-patient, defined as a Reliable Change Index (RCI) [55] >1.96 on the FSFI [36] total score) and to the impact on quality-adjusted life years (cost-per-QALYs). In the primary analysis, consistent with Dutch guidelines, QALYs will be calculated using the Dutch tariff for the 5-level EuroQol-5D (EQ-5D-5 L) [49, 50, 56]. As a secondary analysis, QALYs will also be estimated using the EuroQol visual analogue scale (EQ-VAS, with power transformation) as predicted by a mapping from the FSFI to the EQ-VAS. This secondary analysis is included because the Dutch tariff for the EQ-5D-5 L does not explicitly value sexuality and mapping from the FSFI will make the approach more sensitive to change.

Other study parameters

In addition to treatment- and patient characteristics, treatment credibility and expectancy for improvement will be assessed using the 4-item Credibility and Expectancy Questionnaire (CEQ) [47]. These parameters will be measured at T3. Additionally, at T2-T5 all women will be requested to report the use of any counselling or therapy in the course of their rehabilitation period. Furthermore, the type (face-to-face or by telephone) and the duration of the session, and modules used during the session are documented by the oncology nurses in CRFs. Finally, for each participant, the date of the completion of study participation and the reason for ending study participation are registered in web-based CRFs.

Statistical methods

Power and sample size calculation

The FSFI [36] is the primary outcome measure on which sample size calculations are based. With a total sample of 128 women (64 per group), and under the assumption of no interaction, the study will have a 80% power to detect a 0.5 standard deviation difference (Cohen’s effect size [57]) for the main effects of the sexual rehabilitation intervention, with the p-value set at 0.05 (two-sided test). Based on our pilot study we expect an attrition rate of 40% (i.e., women who discontinue participation in the study due to somatic reasons such as cancer recurrence) [32]. Consequently, we have to include at least 107 women in both study groups ultimately resulting in an intended sample size of 220 women [57].

Statistical analysis

T-tests or appropriate non-parametric statistics for independent samples will be used to evaluate the comparability of the intervention and control group at baseline in terms of sociodemographic and clinical characteristics. If, despite the stratified randomization procedure, the groups are not comparable on one or more background variables, those variables will be employed routinely as covariates in subsequent analyses.

Questionnaire scores will be calculated according to published scoring algorithms. Differences in changes in the primary outcome measure and secondary outcome measures between groups (intervention vs. control group) over time (T1-T5) will be evaluated using multilevel models and are based on an intention-to-treat approach. Effect sizes will be calculated using standard statistical procedures.

Furthermore, multilevel models will be used to investigate if improvement in sexual functioning in the intervention group is moderated by treatment/cancer characteristics and patient characteristics or mediated by e.g. sexual symptoms and vaginal symptoms or frequency of dilator use. Cost-effectiveness will be analysed using net benefit analysis, with multiple imputation to account for missing data.

Per protocol analyses will also be carried out (as a secondary analysis), comparing women who meet minimal compliance levels with the intervention with the control group. We will use correlation analyses to examine the relationship between degree of intervention adherence and intervention effect.

Discussion

Sexual problems, such as dyspareunia, vaginal dryness and a decrease of sexual satisfaction and desire, are frequently reported by GC survivors after treatment with RT, and occur in particular after combined EBRT+BT. Previous studies have shown that psychosexual support after treatment for GC should include cognitive behavioural interventions to increase dilator compliance and improve sexual functioning [2, 15, 2026]. Furthermore, including the patient’s partner, if available, is preferred [26]. Therefore, we developed a nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention, including these key components, to support sexual improvement and vaginal dilator use after RT. This RCT will provide evidence about the efficacy of this nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention in terms of sexual functioning as measured by the FSFI [36], as well as evidence on other sexual outcome measures, compliance with vaginal dilation and the cost-effectiveness of the rehabilitation intervention. We expect that women who received the intervention will report a statistically significantly greater improvement in sexual functioning and – for women who receive EBRT+BT – higher compliance with dilator use, from baseline to 12 months post-RT than women who receive optimal CAU. If proven effective, the rehabilitation intervention will be a valuable addition to the care offered to GC survivors and will contribute to improved quality of life after GC.

The SPARC study has several notable strengths, including the randomized trial design, the multicentre nature (with participation of all Dutch GC centres), the comparison of the intervention group with a control group, the use of a clear treatment protocol and training protocol, the use of intention-to-treat analyses and the long-term follow-up assessments of outcomes. This trial also has several limitations. First, even though the FSFI is one of the most widely used questionnaires to measure sexual functioning among female cancer survivors, it produces biased results for women who have not been sexually active in the past month [36, 58]. The majority of the questions (15 out of 19) include a response option of ‘No sexual activity’ or ‘Did not attempt intercourse’, scored as zero. This is problematic because lower scores indicate more severe dysfunction whereas not engaging in sexual activity during four weeks does not necessarily imply sexual dysfunction. Sexual inactivity could have multiple reasons, such as the absence of a partner. As our study sample consists of partnered as well as unpartnered women, we chose to randomize participants stratified by having a partner. Second, despite the proposed benefits of regular dilator use (i.e., preventing or minimising vaginal stenosis), unequivocal evidence for its effectiveness in reducing vaginal complaints and better sexual functioning is still limited. The consequences of stenosis remain individually determined, with some women unaffected by significant vaginal complaints, while others experience long-lasting sexual problems [11]. However, because dilator use aims to prevent or minimise stenosis, we expect that this could positively affect vaginal complaints and sexual functioning indirectly. Therefore, we will include dilator use as a mediator instead of an outcome measure in the statistical analyses. Third, because RT-induced sexual problems develop soon after treatment, we start evaluating GC survivors early in the recovery phase and continue until 12 months post-RT. A longitudinal study that analysed functioning and symptom scores for quality of life of cervical cancer patients who underwent EBRT+BT demonstrated that RT-induced sexual problems increased to a clinically relevant degree in the first three months, after which it stayed elevated, even after 12 months [59]. This study did not include a sexual rehabilitation intervention. By offering a nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention we hope to find significant greater improvement in sexual functioning between the intervention- and optimal CAU control group at 12 months follow-up. However, it is possible that sexual functioning among GC survivors might improve further after 12 months post-RT. Therefore, we intend to plan an additional long-term follow-up measure at 24 months post-RT. Fourth, the possibility of contamination of our optimal CAU control group exists. In the past few years, the Dutch CAU regarding sexual problems after RT improved and was aligned nationwide, possibly as a consequence of the findings of our pilot study [32]. This resulted in fewer differences between the participating centres in the current trial, as all participating women are offered an information session, information booklet and a dilator set (if applicable) post-RT free of charge. In the current study, this improved CAU, combined with the possibility that the specialized trained nurses also come into contact with the control group, may result in the control group receiving better post-RT psychosexual care than intended - as the nurses might find it difficult not to use the additional trained skills to help these patients. This well-known problem of contamination within individually randomized intervention studies could be avoided by cluster randomization (i.e., on centre level instead of patient level). However, this method also introduces other potential threats to internal validity, as the number of centres in our study is limited and only a part of the centres could be randomized (n = 8, as a consequence of the training that was already completed in two centres for the pilot study) [32]. Because of the specific variation in the patient population, RT treatment procedures and follow-up procedures across centres, we decided to randomize on patient level, with the risk of contamination. During their training, the nurses received clear instructions on the procedure to be followed in both study groups and about the contamination risks.

The importance of the availability of a sexual rehabilitation intervention is evident from the British [60], Australian [61] and Dutch guidelines [62] which state that more attention has to be paid to sexual functioning after RT for GC. To our knowledge, this is the first RCT evaluating the (cost-)effectiveness of a nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention in improving sexual functioning and dilator use compliance of GC patients after RT. If proven to be effective, the intervention will be a valuable addition to GC survivors’ standard care. It will ultimately improve the quality of life of patients (and their partners). The intervention can be implemented nationwide directly after study completion, as all end-users were involved in the preparatory studies [17, 18, 32] and nurses in all Dutch GC centres are trained in the treatment protocol. Implementation is further enhanced by the relatively low costs of personnel and materials. In addition, if successful, the intervention could be extrapolated to women with other types of pelvic cancer (e.g., rectal cancer, anal cancer and bladder cancer).

Availability of data and materials

All (Dutch) materials, such as information folders, will be available by the end of current study and publication of the results. Data containing potentially identifying or sensitive patient information are restricted according to European law (General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR)). The datasets generated and/or analysed during the current study are not available in a public repository, but are available upon reasonable request via MtK.

Abbreviations

BT:

Brachytherapy

CAU:

care as usual

CEA:

cost-effectiveness analysis

CEQ:

Credibility and Expectancy Questionnaire

CRF:

Case Report Form

CTCAE:

Common Terminology Criteria Sexual rehabilitation after RT for gynaecological cancers for Adverse Events

EBRT:

external beam radiotherapy

EORTC QLQ-C30:

European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire Core 30

EORTC QLQ-CX24:

European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire-Gynaecological Cancer Module

EORTC QLQ-EN24:

European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire-Endometrial Cancer Module

EQ-5D-5L:

5-level EuroQol-5D

EQ-VAS:

EuroQol visual analogue scale

FIGO:

Fédération Internationale de Gynécologie et d’Obstétrique

FSDS:

Female Sexual Distress Scale

FSFI:

Female Sexual Function Index

FSQ:

Fear of Sexuality Questionnaire

GC:

gynaecological cancer

HADS:

Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale

IES:

Impact of Event Scale

min:

minutes

MMQ:

Maudsley Martial Questionnaire

PROM:

patient-reported outcome measure

QALYs:

quality-adjusted life years

RCI:

Reliable Change Index

RCT:

randomized controlled trial

RT:

radiotherapy

SPARC:

Sexual rehabilitation Programme After Radiotherapy for gynaecological Cancer

T1:

baseline

T2:

one month post-radiotherapy

T3:

three months post-radiotherapy

T4:

six months post-radiotherapy

T5:

twelve months post-radiotherapy

WHO:

World Health Organisation

References

  1. Dutch Cancer Registry. Nederlandse Kankerregistratie Cijfers 2019 [Available from: https://iknl.nl/nkr-cijfers.

  2. Abbott-Anderson K, Kwekkeboom KL. A systematic review of sexual concerns reported by gynecological cancer survivors. Gynecol Oncol. 2012;124(3):477–89.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  3. Bae H, Park H. Sexual function, depression, and quality of life in patients with cervical cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2016;24(3):1277–83.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  4. Incrocci L, Jensen PT. Pelvic radiotherapy and sexual function in men and women. J Sex Med. 2013;10 Suppl 1:53–64.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  5. Jensen PT, Groenvold M, Klee MC, Thranov I, Petersen MA, Machin D. Longitudinal study of sexual function and vaginal changes after radiotherapy for cervical cancer. International Journal of Radiation Oncology*Biology*Physics. 2003;56(4):937–49.

    Google Scholar 

  6. Jensen PT, Froeding LP. Pelvic radiotherapy and sexual function in women. Transl Androl Urol. 2015;4(2):186–205.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  7. Pieterse QD, Maas CP, ter Kuile MM, Lowik M, van Eijkeren MA, Trimbos JB, et al. An observational longitudinal study to evaluate miction, defecation, and sexual function after radical hysterectomy with pelvic lymphadenectomy for early-stage cervical cancer. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2006;16(3):1119–29.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  8. Pieterse QD, Kenter GG, Maas CP, de Kroon CD, Creutzberg CL, Trimbos JB, et al. Self-reported sexual, bowel and bladder function in cervical cancer patients following different treatment modalities: longitudinal prospective cohort study. Int J Gynecol Cancer. 2013;23(9):1717–25.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  9. Nout RA, Putter H, Jurgenliemk-Schulz IM, Jobsen JJ, Lutgens LC, van der Steen-Banasik EM, et al. Five-year quality of life of endometrial cancer patients treated in the randomised Post Operative Radiation Therapy in Endometrial Cancer (PORTEC-2) trial and comparison with norm data. Eur J Cancer. 2012;48(11):1638–48.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  10. Viswanathan AN, Lee LJ, Eswara JR, Horowitz NS, Konstantinopoulos PA, Mirabeau-Beale KL, et al. Complications of pelvic radiation in patients treated for gynecologic malignancies. Cancer. 2014;120(24):3870–83.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  11. International Clinical Guideline Group. International guidelines on vaginal dilation after pelvic radiotherapy 2012 [Available from: https://www.pocd.com.au/core/media/media.nl/id.47537/c.3923593/.f?h=f2e5bc493442741b7e6c.

  12. Damast S, Jeffery DD, Son CH, Hasan Y, Carter J, Lindau ST, et al. Literature review of vaginal stenosis and dilator use in radiation oncology. Pract Radiat Oncol. 2019;9(6):479–91.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  13. Friedman LC, Abdallah R, Schluchter M, Panneerselvam A, Kunos CA. Adherence to vaginal dilation following high dose rate brachytherapy for endometrial cancer. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2011;80(3):751–7.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  14. Law E, Kelvin JF, Thom B, Riedel E, Tom A, Carter J, et al. Prospective study of vaginal dilator use adherence and efficacy following radiotherapy. Radiother Oncol. 2015;116(1):149–55.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  15. Robinson JW, Faris PD, Scott CB. Psychoeducational group increases vaginal dilation for younger women and reduces sexual fears for women of all ages with gynecological carcinoma treated with radiotherapy. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 1999;44(3):497–506.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  16. Schover LR, Fife M, Gershenson DM. Sexual dysfunction and treatment for early stage cervical-cancer. Cancer. 1989;63(1):204–12.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  17. Bakker RM, Vermeer WM, Creutzberg CL, Mens JWM, Nout RA, ter Kuile MM. Qualitative accounts of patients’ determinants of vaginal dilator use after pelvic radiotherapy. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 2015;12(3):764–73.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  18. Bakker RM, ter Kuile MM, Vermeer WM, Nout RA, Mens JWM, van Doorn LC, et al. Sexual rehabilitation after pelvic radiotherapy and vaginal dilator use: consensus using the Delphi method. International Journal of Gynecologic Cancer. 2014;24(8):1499–506.

    Google Scholar 

  19. Lubotzky FP, Butow P, Hunt C, Costa DSJ, Laidsaar-Powell R, Carroll S, et al. A psychosexual rehabilitation booklet increases vaginal dilator adherence and knowledge in women undergoing pelvic radiation therapy for gynaecological or anorectal cancer: a randomised controlled trial. Clin Oncol (R Coll Radiol). 2019;31(2):124–31.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  20. Jeffries SA, Robinson JW, Craighead PS, Keats MR. An effective group psychoeducational intervention for improving compliance with vaginal dilation: a randomized controlled trial. Int J Radiat Oncol Biol Phys. 2006;65(2):404–11.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  21. Bakker RM, Kenter GG, Creutzberg CL, Stiggelbout AM, Derks M, Mingelen W, et al. Sexual distress and associated factors among cervical cancer survivors: a cross-sectional multicenter observational study. Psychooncology. 2017;26(10):1470–7.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  22. Aktaş D, Terzioğlu F. Effect of home care service on the sexual satisfaction of patients with gynecologic cancer. Sexuality and Disability. 2014;33(2):243–52.

    Google Scholar 

  23. Brotto LA, Erskine Y, Carey M, Ehlen T, Finlayson S, Heywood M, et al. A brief mindfulness-based cognitive behavioral intervention improves sexual functioning versus wait-list control in women treated for gynecologic cancer. Gynecol Oncol. 2012;125(2):320–5.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  Google Scholar 

  24. Cain EN, Kohorn EI, Quinlan DM, Latimer K, Schwartz PE. Psychosocial benefits of a cancer support group. Cancer. 1986;57(1):183–9.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  25. Classen CC, Chivers ML, Urowitz S, Barbera L, Wiljer D, O’Rinn S, et al. Psychosexual distress in women with gynecologic cancer: a feasibility study of an online support group. Psycho-Oncology. 2013;22(4):930–5.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  26. Scott JL, Halford WK, Ward BG. United we stand? The effects of a couple-coping intervention on adjustment to early stage breast or gynecological cancer. J Consult Clin Psych. 2004;72(6):1122–35.

    Google Scholar 

  27. Gunzler C, Berner MM. Efficacy of psychosocial interventions in men and women with sexual dysfunctions - a systematic review of controlled clinical trials: part 2 - the efficacy of psychosocial interventions for female sexual dysfunction. J Sex Med. 2012;9(12):3108–25.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  28. Heima JR, Meston CM. Empirically validated treatment for sexual dysfunction. Annu Rev Sex Res. 1997;8:148–94.

    Google Scholar 

  29. ter Kuile MM, Both S, van Lankveld JJ. Cognitive behavioral therapy for sexual dysfunctions in women. Psychiatr Clin North Am. 2010;33(3):595–610.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  30. Vermeer WM, Bakker RM, Kenter GG, Stiggelbout AM, Ter Kuile MM. Cervical cancer survivors’ and partners’ experiences with sexual dysfunction and psychosexual support. Support Care Cancer. 2016;24(4):1679–87.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  31. Vermeer WM, Bakker RM, Stiggelbout AM, Creutzberg CL, Kenter GG, ter Kuile MM. Psychosexual support for gynecological cancer survivors: professionals’ current practices and need for assistance. Support Care Cancer. 2015;23(3):831–9.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  32. Bakker RM, Mens JW, de Groot HE, Tuijnman-Raasveld CC, Braat C, Hompus WC, et al. A nurse-led sexual rehabilitation intervention after radiotherapy for gynecological cancer. Support Care Cancer. 2017;25(3):729–37.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  33. Basson R. The female sexual response: a different model. J Sex Marital Ther. 2000;26(1):51–65.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  34. Spano L, Lamont JA. Dyspareunia: a symptom of female sexual dysfunction. Can Nurse. 1975;71(8):22–5.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  35. Miller WR, Rollnick S. Motivational interviewing: helping people change. 3 ed: Guilford Press; 2013.

  36. Rosen R, Brown C, Heiman J, Leiblum S, Meston C, Shabsigh R, et al. The Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI): a multidimensional self-report instrument for the assessment of female sexual function. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 2000;26(2):191–208.

    CAS  Google Scholar 

  37. Greimel ER, Kuljanic Vlasic K, Waldenstrom AC, Duric VM, Jensen PT, Singer S, et al. The European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer (EORTC) Quality-of-Life questionnaire cervical cancer module: EORTC QLQ-CX24. Cancer. 2006;107(8):1812–22.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  38. ter Kuile MM, van Lankveld JJ, de Groot E, Melles R, Neffs J, Zandbergen M. Cognitive-behavioral therapy for women with lifelong vaginismus: process and prognostic factors. Behav Res Ther. 2007;45(2):359–73.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  39. Derogatis LR, Rosen R, Leiblum S, Burnett A, Heiman J. The Female Sexual Distress Scale (FSDS): initial validation of a standardized scale for assessment of sexually related personal distress in women. J Sex Marital Ther. 2002;28(4):317–30.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  40. Horowitz M, Wilner N, Alvarez W. Impact of Event Scale: a measure of subjective stress. Psychosom Med. 1979;41(3):209–18.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  41. Aaronson NK, Ahmedzai S, Bergman B, Bullinger M, Cull A, Duez NJ, et al. The European Organization for Research and Treatment of Cancer QLQ-C30: a quality-of-life instrument for use in international clinical trials in oncology. J Natl Cancer Inst. 1993;85(5):365–76.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  42. Greimel E, Nordin A, Lanceley A, Creutzberg CL, van de Poll-Franse LV, Radisic VB, et al. Psychometric validation of the European Organisation for Research and Treatment of Cancer Quality of Life Questionnaire-Endometrial Cancer Module (EORTC QLQ-EN24). Eur J Cancer. 2011;47(2):183–90.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  43. Zigmond AS, Snaith RP. The hospital anxiety and depression scale. Acta Psychiatr Scand. 1983;67(6):361–70.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  44. Crowe MJ. Conjoint marital therapy: a controlled outcome study. Psychol Med. 1978;8(4):623–36.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  45. ter Kuile MM, Brauer M, Laan E. The Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) and the Female Sexual Distress Scale (FSDS): psychometric properties within a Dutch population. J Sex Marital Ther. 2006;32(4):289–304.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  46. Baser RE, Li Y, Carter J. Psychometric validation of the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) in cancer survivors. Cancer. 2012;118(18):4606–18.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  47. Borkovec TD, Nau SD. Credibility of analogue therapy rationales. Journal of Behavior Therapy and Experimental Psychiatry. 1972;3(4):257–60.

    Google Scholar 

  48. Devilly GJ, Borkovec TD. Psychometric properties of the credibility/expectancy questionnaire. J Behav Ther Exp Psychiatry. 2000;31(2):73–86.

    CAS  PubMed  Google Scholar 

  49. Herdman M, Gudex C, Lloyd A, Janssen M, Kind P, Parkin D, et al. Development and preliminary testing of the new five-level version of EQ-5D (EQ-5D-5L). Qual Life Res. 2011;20(10):1727–36.

    PubMed  PubMed Central  CAS  Google Scholar 

  50. Versteegh MM, Vermeulen KM, Evers SMAA, de Wit GA, Prenger R, Stolk EA. Dutch tariff for the five-level version of EQ-5D. Value Health. 2016;19(4):343–52.

    Google Scholar 

  51. Spinhoven P, Ormel J, Sloekers PPA, Kempen GIJM, Speckens AEM, VanHemert AM. A validation study of the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale (HADS) in different groups of Dutch subjects. Psychological Medicine. 1997;27(2):363–70.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  52. Bjelland I, Dahl AA, Haug TT, Neckelmann D. The validity of the Hospital Anxiety and Depression Scale. An updated literature review. J Psychosom Res. 2002;52(2):69–77.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  53. van der Ploeg E, Mooren TT, Kleber RJ, van der Velden PG, Brom D. Construct validation of the Dutch version of the impact of event scale. Psychol Assess. 2004;16(1):16–26.

    PubMed  Google Scholar 

  54. Arrindell WA, Boelens W, Lambert H. On the psychometric properties of the Maudsley Marital Questionnaire (MMQ): Evaluation of self-ratings in distressed and ‘normal’ volunteer couples based on the Dutch version. Personality and Individual Differences. 1983;4(3):293–306.

    Google Scholar 

  55. Jacobson NS, Truax P. Clinical significance: a statistical approach to defining meaningful change in psychotherapy research. J Consult Clin Psychol. 1991;59(1):12–9.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  56. Janssen MF, Pickard AS, Golicki D, Gudex C, Niewada M, Scalone L, et al. Measurement properties of the EQ-5D-5L compared to the EQ-5D-3L across eight patient groups: a multi-country study. Qual Life Res. 2013;22(7):1717–27.

    PubMed  CAS  Google Scholar 

  57. Cohen J. Statistical power analysis for the behavioral sciences 2nd ed. Mahwah, New Jersey: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.; 1988.

    Google Scholar 

  58. Meyer-Bahlburg HFL, Dolezal C. The female sexual function index: a methodological critique and suggestions for improvement. Journal of Sex & Marital Therapy. 2007;33(3):217–24.

    Google Scholar 

  59. Kirchheiner K, Potter R, Tanderup K, Lindegaard JC, Haie-Meder C, Petric P, et al. Health-related quality of life in locally advanced cervical cancer patients after definitive chemoradiation therapy including image guided adaptive brachytherapy: an analysis From the EMBRACE Study. Int J Radiat Oncol. 2016;94(5):1088–98.

    Google Scholar 

  60. Reed N, Balega J, Barwick T, Buckley L, Burton K, Eminowicz G, et al. British Gynaecological Cancer Society (BGCS) cervical cancer guidelines: recommendations for practice. Eur J Obstet Gyn R B. 2021;256:433–65.

    Google Scholar 

  61. Cancer Australia. Psychosexual care of women with gynaecological cancers 2021 [Available from: https://www.cancerlearning.gov.au/topics/psgc.

  62. Integraal Kankercentrum Nederland. Cervixcarcinoom Landelijke richtlijn, Versie: 3.0 2012 [Available from: http://www.med-info.nl/Richtlijnen/Oncologie/Gynaecologische%20tumoren/Cervixcarcinoom.pdf.

Download references

Acknowledgements

Participating centres: Amsterdam University Medical Centers, location AMC, Amsterdam; Catharina Hospital, Eindhoven; Erasmus Medical Center Cancer Institute, Rotterdam; Leiden University Medical Center, Leiden; MAASTRO clinic, Maastricht; Radboud University Medical Center, Nijmegen; Radiotherapiegroep, Arnhem; The Netherlands Cancer Institute, Amsterdam; University Medical Center Groningen, Groningen; University Medical Center Utrecht, Utrecht. Treatment protocol: drs. Charlotte C. Tuijnman-Raasveld; drs. H. Ellen de Groot; dr. Moniek M. ter Kuile.

Funding

This ongoing trial is funded by the Dutch Cancer Society, Alpe d’HuZes (grant number 10674; https://www.kwf.nl/en/english). The main role of the funder is to provide financial support for this study. The funder has no influence on the design of the study, analysis and interpretation of data as well as no role in the writing of the manuscript. However, the trial protocol plan has been reviewed (by independent reviewers) and approved by the funder.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations

Authors

Contributions

MtK is the coordinating investigator/project leader. CC is the principal investigator and JWM is the co-principal investigator of this study. SH is the senior researcher on this project. IS is the PhD candidate on the study, and created the first draft of this manuscript based on the study protocol. HCvD played a key role in the development of the study protocol. WvdH plays a key role in the cost-effectiveness analyses. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Isabelle Suvaal.

Ethics declarations

Ethics approval and consent to participate

This SPARC study has been approved by the Medical Ethical Committee Leiden-Den Haag-Delft (number NL62767.058.17) and by the institutional review boards of the 10 participating gynaecological cancer centres (see the Acknowledgements section). Participating women have provided written informed consent.

Consent for publication

Not applicable.

Competing interests

The authors declare that they have no competing interests.

Additional information

Publisher’s Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Open Access This article is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, which permits use, sharing, adaptation, distribution and reproduction in any medium or format, as long as you give appropriate credit to the original author(s) and the source, provide a link to the Creative Commons licence, and indicate if changes were made. The images or other third party material in this article are included in the article's Creative Commons licence, unless indicated otherwise in a credit line to the material. If material is not included in the article's Creative Commons licence and your intended use is not permitted by statutory regulation or exceeds the permitted use, you will need to obtain permission directly from the copyright holder. To view a copy of this licence, visit http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/. The Creative Commons Public Domain Dedication waiver (http://creativecommons.org/publicdomain/zero/1.0/) applies to the data made available in this article, unless otherwise stated in a credit line to the data.

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Suvaal, I., Hummel, S.B., Mens, JW.M. et al. A sexual rehabilitation intervention for women with gynaecological cancer receiving radiotherapy (SPARC study): design of a multicentre randomized controlled trial. BMC Cancer 21, 1295 (2021). https://0-doi-org.brum.beds.ac.uk/10.1186/s12885-021-08991-2

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI: https://0-doi-org.brum.beds.ac.uk/10.1186/s12885-021-08991-2

Keywords

  • Health-related quality of life
  • Sexual functioning
  • Rehabilitation intervention
  • Gynaecological cancer