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Herman & Wallace Blog

Women and Cancer and Sex

It’s St Valentine’s day this week – you may have noticed hearts and flowers everywhere you look and a general theme of love and romance. For many women going through cancer treatment, sex may be the last thing on their mind…or not! Women who are going through treatment for gynecologic cancer are often handed a set of dilators with minimal instruction on how to use them, or as one patient reported, they are told to have sex three or four times a week during radiation therapy ‘to keep your vagina patent’. As a pelvic rehab practitioner with a special interest in oncology rehab, I know that we can (we must!) do better, in helping women live well after cancer treatment ends.

As Susan Gubar, an ovarian cancer survivor, writes in the New York Times ‘…It can be difficult to experience desire if you don’t love but fear your body or if you cannot recognize it as your own. Surgical scars, lost body parts and hair, chemically induced fatigue, radiological burns, nausea, hormone-blocking medications, numbness from neuropathies, weight gain or loss, and anxiety hardly function as aphrodisiacs…’

Although sexual changes can be categorised into physical, psychological and social, the categories cannot be neatly delineated in the lived experience (Malone at al 2017). The good news? Pelvic rehab therapists not only have the skills to enhance pelvic health after cancer treatment and are ideally positioned to be able to take a global and local approach to the sexual health difficulties women may face after cancer treatment ends, but there is also a good and growing body of evidence to support the work we do. Factors to consider include physical issues leading to dyspareunia, including musculo-skeletal/ orthopaedic, Psychological issues, including loss of libido and other pelvic health issues impacting sexual function such as faecal/ urinary incontinence, pain or fatigue.

In Hazewinkel’s 2010 paper, women reported that they thought their physicians would tell them if solutions were available…most reported reasons for not seeking help were that women found their symptoms bearable in the light of their cancer diagnosis and lacked knowledge about possible treatments but when informed of possible treatment strategies ‘…women stated that care should be improved, specifically by timely referral to pelvic floor specialists’. The good news: ‘‘Pelvic Floor Rehab Physiotherapy is effective even in gynecological cancer survivors who need it most.’ (Yang 2012)

The issue therefore may be one of awareness – for both the women who need our services and the physicians and healthcare team who work in the field of gynecologic oncology. What we need is acknowledgement of the issues and confident conversation and assessment by clinicians – interested in learning more? Come and join the conversation in Tampa next month at my Oncology & the Female Pelvic Floor course!


‘Sex after Cancer’ by Susan Gubar, https://www.nytimes.com/2018/01/18/well/live/sex-after-cancer.html
Malone et al 2017: ‘‘The patient’s voice: What are the views of women on living with pelvic floor problems following successful treatment for pelvic cancers?’
Hazewinkel et al 2010 ‘Reasons for not seeking medical help for severe pelvic floor symptoms: a qualitative study in survivors of gynaecological cancer’

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