The following comes to us from Herman & Wallace faculty member Michelle Lyons. Michelle travels the world spreading the word about pelvic rehabilitation and the powerful benefits it can have on a patient's everyday life. Michelle will be teaching her newest course, "Oncology and the Female Pelvic Floor: Female Reproductive and Gynecologic Cancers" in White Plains, NY this August 14 - 15. Join her to learn more about evaluating and treating oncology patients.
According to the Scientific Network of Female Sexual Health and Cancer, ‘Sexuality is an experience that really is at the intersection of mind, body and relationship, and cancer treatment can impact all three of those elements”. Dr Sharon Bober of Dana Farber says ‘Part of the problem is that doctors are so focused on saving a cancer patient's life that they forget to discuss issues of sexual health. My sense is that it's not about physicians or health care providers not caring about your sexual health or thinking that it's unimportant, but that cancer is the emergency, and everything else seems to fall by the wayside".
If you harness the power of Google to look up female sexual dysfunction after gynaecologic cancer, you may see phrases like ‘Possible sexual side effects…’ or ‘Cancer treatment can cause physical changes that make having sex more difficult’ or even ‘cancer treatments may make intercourse painful’. To call these descriptions ‘understatements’ does not really do them justice.
For many women post-gynaecological cancer, resuming sexual function can be a multi-faceted problem. Issues can range from dealing with Cancer Related Fatigue and nausea, vomiting or diarrhea to physical changes in the size and shape of the vaginal canal. Cancer treatments can also cause hormone imbalances and tissue damage. Add to this issues with post-surgical/radiation adhesions, a disruption to the ability to produce lubrication, challenges to the musculo-skeletal systems within the hips and the pelvis as well as the onset of medically induced menopause….well you get the picture.
In a 2009 paper, ‘Interventions for sexuality after pelvic radiation therapy and gynaecological cancer’, Katz talks about the fact that ‘…very little attention has been paid to the sexual difficulties women experience after radiation to the sexual organs. There are a limited number of interventions for the woman who has been treated for gynaecological cancer with radiation. These focus on the provision of information and some specific suggestions related to treating vaginal dryness, the need for vaginal dilatation after radiation therapy, and management of fatigue. In ‘A systematic review of sexual concerns reported by gynaecological cancer survivors’ (Abbot Anderson 2012), the author points out that common concerns in the physical dimension were dyspareunia, changes in the vagina, and decreased sexual activity.
In the psychological dimension, common concerns were decreased libido, alterations in body image, and anxiety related to sexual performance. And in the social dimension, common concerns were difficulty maintaining previous sexual roles, emotional distancing from the partner, and perceived change in the partner's level of sexual interest.
The good news is that you can return to a normal sex life after surviving gynaecological cancer – particularly with the help of a skilled pelvic rehab provider.
In part 2 of this blog series, I will look at specific interventions in sexual rehab for the gynaecological cancer survivor. Interested in learning more about pelvic rehab and oncology? Join me in White Plains in August!