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.
Interstitial cystitis is a chronic pain condition characterized by both pelvic pain and urinary symptoms. It’s diagnosed by unexplained pain or pressure that is perceived to be related to the bladder, and affects more than 12 million Americans. It’s often described as the sensation of a urinary tract infection, but without any bacterial infection. Many patients report severe pain, often more intense than that associated with bladder cancer, and up to 85% of patients have accompanying pelvic floor dysfunction.
Pelvic floor physical therapy is the most proven treatment for interstitial cystitis. It’s recommended by the American Urological Association (AUA) as a first-line medical treatment in their IC Guidelines, and is the only treatment given an evidence grade of ‘A’. Furthermore, it’s the sole intervention that provides sustained relief; bladder treatments and oral medications must be continued indefinitely to provide benefit, if they work at all.
Research has demonstrated that at least 85% of patients with interstitial cystitis also have pelvic floor dysfunction. In fact, many of the symptoms of IC can only be explained by the pelvic floor. The majority of patients report painful intercourse, low back pain, hip pain, or constipation accompanying the condition; symptoms that have nothing to do with the bladder.
Curing cancer but not addressing life-altering complications can be compared to feeding the homeless on Thanksgiving but turning your back on them the rest of the year. We love hearing positive outcomes of a surgery, but we are not always aware of what happens beyond that. Colorectal cancer is often treated by colectomy, and sometimes the survivor of cancer is left with urological or sexual dysfunction, small bowel obstruction, or pelvic lymphedema.
Panteleimonitis et al., (2017) recognized the prevalence of urological and sexual dysfunction after rectal cancer surgery and compared robotic versus laparoscopic approaches to see how each impacted urogenital function. In this study, 49 males and 29 females underwent laparoscopic surgery, and 35 males and 13 females underwent robotic surgery. Prior to surgery, 36 men and 9 women were sexually active in the first group and 13 men and 4 women were sexually active in the latter group. Focusing on the male results, male urological function (MUF) scores were worse pre-operatively in the robotic group for frequency, nocturia, and urgency compared to the laparoscopic group. Post-operatively, urological function scores improved in all areas except initiation/straining for the robotic group; however, the MUF median scores declined in the laparoscopic group. Regarding male sexual function (MSF) scores for libido, erection, stiffness for penetration and orgasm/ ejaculation, the mean scores worsened in all areas for the laparoscopic group but showed positive outcomes for the robotic group. In spite of limitations of the study, the authors concluded robotic rectal cancer surgery may afford males and females more promising urological and sexual outcomes as robotic.
Husarić et al., (2016) considered the risk factors for adhesive small bowel obstruction (SBO) after colorectal cancer colectomy, as SBO is a common morbidity that causes a decrease in quality of life. They performed a retrospective study of 248 patients who underwent colon cancer surgery, and 13.7% of all the patients had SBO. Thirty (14%) of the 213 males and 9 (12.7%) of the 71 females had SBO; consequently, they found patients being >60 years old was a more significant risk factor than sex regarding occurrence of SBO. The authors concluded a Tumor-Node Metastasis stage of >3 and immediate postoperative complications were found to be the greatest risk factors for SBO.
When I work prn in inpatient rehabilitation, I have access to each patient’s chart and can really focus on the systems review and past medical history, which often gives me ample reasons to ask about pelvic floor dysfunction. So, of course, I do. I have yet to find a gynecological cancer survivor who does not report an ongoing struggle with urinary incontinence. And sadly, they all report that they just deal with it.
Bretschneider et al.2016 researched the presence of pelvic floor disorders in females with presumed gynecological malignancy prior to surgical intervention. Baseline assessments were completed by 152 of the 186 women scheduled for surgery. The rate of urinary incontinence (UI) at baseline was 40.9% for the subjects, all of whom had uterine, ovarian, or cervical cancer. Stress urinary incontinence (SUI) was reported by 33.3% of the women, urge incontinence (UI) by 25%, fecal incontinence (FI) by 3.9%, abdominal pain by 47.4%, constipation by 37.7%, and diarrhea by 20.1%. The authors concluded pelvic floor disorders are prevalent among women with suspected gynecologic cancer and should be noted prior to surgery in order to provide more thorough rehabilitation for these women post-operatively.
Ramaseshan et al.2017 performed a systematic review of 31 articles to study pelvic floor disorder prevalence among women with gynecologic malignant cancers. Before treatment of cervical cancer, the prevalence of SUI was 24-29% (4-76% post-treatment), UI was 8-18% (4-59% post-treatment), and FI was 6% (2-34% post- treatment). Cervical cancer treatment also caused urinary retention (0.4-39%), fecal urge (3-49%), dyspareunia (12-58%), and vaginal dryness (15-47%). Uterine cancer showed a pre-treatment prevalence of SUI (29-36%), UUI (15-25%), and FI (3%) and post-treatment prevalence of UI (2-44%) and dyspareunia (7-39%). Vulvar cancer survivors had post-treatment prevalence of UI (4-32%), SUI (6-20%), and FI (1-20%). Ovarian cancer survivors had prevalence of SUI (32-42%), UUI (15-39%), prolapse (17%) and sexual dysfunction (62-75%). The authors concluded pelvic floor dysfunction is prevalent among gynecologic cancer survivors and needs to be addressed.
Summer can make women cringe at the thought of baring most of their bodies yet finding just the right coverage for their breasts. Some scrounge for padded tops to pump up their actual A cup. Some seek the greatest amount of coverage to support every ounce of skin. And still others search for flattering tops to accentuate cleavage and minimize tan lines. Just like one swimsuit does not fit every woman, only one aspect of post-breast cancer rehab is not generally sufficient. A combination of exercise, mindfulness, and myofascial release may need to be implemented for optimal recovery.
Ibrahim et al., (2017) produced a pilot randomized controlled trial considering the effects of specific exercise on upper limb function and ability to return to work after radiotherapy for breast oncology. The study involved 59 young women divided into an exercise group or a control group that received standard care. The Disability of Arm, Shoulder, and Hand (DASH), the Metabolic Equivalent of Task-hours per week (MET-hours/week), and a post hoc questionnaire on return to work were all used and recorded over 6 time periods after the 12-week post-radiation targeted exercise program. Women who had a total mastectomy still had upper limb dysfunction, but no there was no statistically significant difference in DASH scores between groups. Both groups at 18 months had returned to their pre-illness activity levels, and 86% returned to work (at just 8.5 fewer hours/week). The authors concluded exercise alone does not change the long-term outcome of upper limb function post-radiation.
Mindfulness-based cognitive therapy (MBCT) for persistent pain in women after treatment for primary breast cancer was explored by Johannsen et al., in two 2017 articles, one concerned with clinical and psychological mediators and the other focused on cost-effectiveness. Each study included 129 women with persistent pain from breast cancer, placed in a MBCT group or a wait-list control group. The first study showed attachment avoidance was a statistically significant moderator, with subjects who had a higher attachment avoidance having lower pain intensity after MBCT. In the subjects undergoing radiotherapy, MBCT had a smaller effect on pain than those not having radiotherapy. The authors’ next study focused on the minimal clinically important difference (MCID) on pain intensity. Baseline and 6 months post-treatment data on healthcare utilization and pain medication were analyzed from national registries. The average total cost of the MBCT group was 730 euros less than the control group, and more women in the MBCT group had a MCID in pain than those in the control group.
At a hair salon, I once saw a plaque that declared, “I’m a beautician, not a magician.” This crossed my mind while reading research on radical prostatectomy, as knowing the baseline penile function of men before surgery seemed challenging. Restoring something that may have been subpar prior to surgery can be a daunting task, and it can cause discrepancies in results of clinical trials. Despite this, two recent studies reviewed the current and future penile rehabilitation approaches post-radical prostatectomy.
Bratu et al.2017 published a review referring to post-radical prostatectomy (RP) erectile dysfunction (ED) as a challenge for patients as well as physicians. They emphasized the use of the International Index of Erectile Function (IIEF) Questionnaire to establish a man’s baseline erectile function, which can be affected by factors such as age, diabetes, alcohol use, smoking habits, heart and kidney diseases, and neurological disorders. The higher the IIEF score preoperatively, the higher the probability of recovering erectile function post-surgery. The experience of the surgeon and the technique used were also factors involved in ED. Radical prostatectomy is a trauma to the pelvis that negatively affects oxygenation of the corpora cavernosum, resulting in apoptosis and fibrotic changes in the tissue, leading to ED. Minimally invasive surgery allows a significantly lower rate of post-RP ED with robot assisted radical prostatectomy (RARP) versus open surgery. The cavernous neurovascular bundles get hypoxic and ischemic regardless of the technique used; therefore, the authors emphasized early post-op penile rehabilitation to prevent fibrosis of smooth muscle and to improve cavernous oxygenation for the potential return of satisfactory sexual function within 12-24 months.
Clavell-Hernandez and Wang2017 [and Bratu et al., (2017)] reported on various aspects of penile rehabilitation after radical prostatectomy. The treatment with the most research to support its efficacy and safety was oral phosphodiesterase type-5 inhibitors (PDE5Is), which help relax smooth muscle and promote erection on a cellular level. Sildenafil, vardenafil, avanafil, and tadalafil have been studied, either used on demand or nightly. Tadalafil had the longer half-life and was considered to have the greatest efficacy. Nightly versus on-demand for any PDE5I was variable in its results. Intracavernosal injection (ICI) and intraurethral therapy using alprostadil for vasodilation improved erectile function, but it caused urethral burning and penile pain. Vacuum erection devices (VED) promoted penile erection via negative pressure around the penis, bringing blood into the corpus cavernosum. There was no need for intact corporal nerve or nitric oxide pathways for proper function, and it allowed for multiple erections in a day. Intracavernous stem cell injections provided a promising approach for ED, and they may be combined with PDE5Is or low-energy shockwave therapy. Ultimately, the authors concluded early penile rehabilitation should involve a combination of available therapies.
Lymphedema with regards to women’s health is most commonly associated with breast cancer. Upper extremity lymphedema can be limiting and painful without a doubt, and I have seen women suffering from irritating edema and limited shoulder range of motion and function after radical mastectomy. However, we may not always consider lower extremity lymphedema which can occur as a result of urogenital cancers and their treatments. Our knowledge and skilled hands can impact the quality of life of these patients who may seek treatment for their post-cancer complications.
Mitra et al., published a 2016 retrospective study on lymphedema risk post radiation therapy in endometrial cancer. They considered 212 endometrial cancer survivors, and 7.1% who received adjuvant pelvic radiation therapy developed lower extremity lymphedema after treatment, whether they had chemotherapy or not. Finding at least 1 positive pathological lymph node was directly correlated with an increased risk of lymphedema, regardless of attempts to control pelvic lymph-node dissection. These statistics encourage finding prophylactic measures to take for stage III endometrial cancer patients to minimize the risk for long-term lymphedema. Regarding treatment for lower extremity lymphedema, this paper discussed compression stocking use, pneumatic compression stockings, and complex decongestive therapy, an intensive regimen of physical therapy and massage that is unfortunately not easily accessible for a majority of patients. The authors encouraged future research on the efficacy of exercise and compression for lymph node positive patients.
Shaitelman et al. presented a review of the progress made in the treatment and prevention of cancer-related lymphedema (2015). They stated gynecologic cancer treatment is associated with 25% incidence of lymphedema. Endometrial cancer had 1%, cervical cancer had 27%, and vulvar cancer had 30% incidence specifically. Sentinel lymph node biopsy (SLNB) can be an important part of cancer treatment, as lymphedema incidence was shown to average 9%. With treatment of genitourinary cancers, lymphedema occurred in 4% patients with prostate cancer, 16% patients with bladder cancer, and 21% patients with penile cancer. Shown to decrease limb volume and improve quality of life, the current standard of care is complete decongestive therapy (CDT). These authors state CDT involves the use of manual lymphatic drainage (MLD), bandaging on a daily basis, skin care, exercise, and a 3-phase protocol of compression. The use of SLNB helps identify the risk of lymphedema post cancer treatment; however, clinicians need to be aware of the signs and symptoms of lymphedema so the affected patient can be recognized early and referred to the appropriate specialist for treatment.
A diagnosis of breast cancer means many different things to many different people. Regardless, receiving this diagnosis means some sort of treatment will likely follow. The types of treatment and outcomes are largely dependent on individual patient scenarios, however, one thing is for certain: A patient’s life will be forever changed after having received this diagnosis.Historically, comprehensive care for a patient with breast cancer has focused on treatment and prevention. However, more and more women are surviving breast cancer every year. Therefore, more attention needs to be paid to survivorship. Once someone has survived cancer, comprehensive, quality care should obviously focus on preventing recurrence, however, it may also include guidance and counseling on maintaining a healthy lifestyle and addressing physical and psychosocial changes.
A very recent 2016 article published in the Annals of Surgical Oncology discusses the subject of survivorship in breast cancer patients. This article suggests that the key to achieving successful outcomes for management of a breast cancer survivor is a multidisciplinary approach to help these survivors deal with the physical and psychosocial sequela resulting from their diagnosis.
As a pelvic rehabilitation provider, this is a very thought-provoking article as it outlines several areas in which I feel breast cancer survivors could benefit from physical therapy. A pelvic rehabilitation provider can be a valuable part of the multidisciplinary team that helps manage a breast cancer survivor towards positive and meaningful outcomes, ultimately enhancing their quality of life. The following are some areas addressed in the article in which a breast cancer survivor may need assistance to improve and support a meaningful quality of life.
Susannah Haarmann, PT, CLT, WCS is the author and instructor of Physical Therapy Treatment for the Breast Oncology Patient. Join her this September 24-25 in Stockton, CA to learn about the various diagnostic tests, medical and surgical interventions to provide appropriate and optimal therapeutic interventions for breast cancer patients.
I turned to the literature and found prominent articles discussing breast reconstruction and giving minimal consequence to shoulder function after resection of the latissimus dorsi muscle. As a physical therapist, this left me in a quandary, “Really? Harvesting a portion of the broadest muscle of the back then threading it through the axilla to recreate the breast mound won’t have an impact on shoulder function or back pain? Impressive!” However, this did not correlate with my clinical findings. Often, scapulohumeral rhythm was altered, range of motion restricted and activities limited due to pain and fatigue. Scrutinizing the literature, I found that those articles were mostly unsubstantiated. Here is a quick summary of two systematic reviews published in 2014 addressing what the research really found pertaining to shoulder function after ‘lat flap’ reconstruction:
Patient impressions: - Reported incidence of overall functional impairment is 41%. 8 - Overhead activities, lifting and pushing objects and high-level activities such as sport and housework were the most cumbersome. 1,7 - Subjective deficits did not resolve based on length of follow-up. 1
Spending the past 5 years watching a lot of Disney Junior and reading Dr. Seuss, professional journal reading is generally reserved for the sanctuary of the bathroom. When patients ask if I’ve heard of certain new procedures or therapies, I try to sound intelligent and make a mental note to run a PubMed search on the topic when I get home. Making the effort to stay on top of research, however, makes you a more confident and competent clinician for the information-hungry patient and encourages physicians to respect you when it comes to discussing their patients.
A 2016 article in Translational Andrology and Urology, Lin et al., explored rehabilitation of men post radical prostatectomy on a deeper level, trying to prove that brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) promotes nerve regeneration. In many radical prostatectomies, even when the nerve-sparing approach is used, there is injury to the cavernous nerves, which course along the posterolateral portion of the prostate. Cavernous nerve injury can cause erectile dysfunction in 60.8-93% of males postoperatively. The authors discussed Schwann cells as being vital for maintaining integrity and function of peripheral nerves like the cavernous nerve. They hypothesized that BDNF, a member of the neurotrophin family that supports neuron survival and prevents neuronal death, activates the JAK/STAT (Janus kinase /signal transducer and activator of transcription) pathway in Schwann cells, thus facilitating axonal regeneration via secretion of cytokines (IL-6 and OSM-M). Through scientific experiment on a cellular level (please refer to the article for the specific details), the authors were able to confirm their hypothesis. Schwann cells do, in fact, produce cytokines that contribute to the regeneration of cavernous nerves.
From a different cellular perspective, Haahr et al., (2016) performed an open-label clinical trial involving intracavernous injection of “autologous adipose-derived regenerative cells” (ADRCs) in males experiencing erectile dysfunction (ED) after radical prostatectomy. Current treatments with PDE-5 inhibitors do not give satisfactory results, so the authors performed a human phase 1, single-arm trial to further the research behind the use of adipose-derived stem cells for ED. Some limitations included the study was un-blinded and had no control group. Seventeen males who had ED after radical prostatectomy 5-18 months prior to the study were followed for 6 months post intracavernosal transplantation. The primary outcome was safety/tolerance of stem cell treatment, and the secondary was improvement of ED. The single intracavernosal injection of freshly isolated autologous adipose-derived cells resulted in 8 of 17 men regaining erectile function for intercourse; however, the men who were not continent did not regain erectile function. The end results showed the procedure was safe and well-tolerated. There was a significant improvement in scores for the International Index of Erectile Function-5 (IIEF-5), suggesting this therapy may be a promising one for ED after radical prostatectomy.