Unfortunately, many cancer patients feel ashamed when dealing with sexual dysfunction, stopping them from finding help. We want to help change that by increasing awareness regarding sexual dysfunction after cancer care, and the treatments that exist for it.
Gynecological Cancer Awareness Month (each September), aims to bring awareness to the thousands of women worldwide impacted by female cancers. With greater awareness and understanding, they can work to understand and prevent cancer and better support patients experiencing cancer care and recovery.
If you are one of the thousands of women in Australia seeking support after cancer care, this is the right article for you. Let’s take a closer look at the kinds of sexual dysfunction women face post-surgery after cancer treatment. Then, we’ll review how pelvic physiotherapists—like those on the team at Sydney Pelvic Clinic—can help with sexual dysfunction recovery.
Understanding Breast and Gynecological Cancers
The best way to understand the kinds of dysfunctions we might face after cancer treatment is to fully understand our cancer type, its symptoms, and how treatment will impact the body. In this overview, we’re looking at breast cancer and other gynecological cancers.
What Is Breast Cancer?
Breast cancer is a form of cancer that happens in the breast tissue. When a woman has breast cancer, cancer cells form and multiply in the body, growing tumors in the breast tissue. It’s important to note that while breast cancer primarily impacts women, it can affect men too!
Breast Cancer Symptoms
When a person has breast cancer, they’ll encounter the following symptoms:
- Unusual lumps found in the breast and/or underarm area
- Changes in the breast size or shape
- Changes to the nipple, such as changes in texture, discharge, or nipple inversion
- Changes to the breast skin, such as thickening, peeling, swelling, redness, or pitting
- Unusual pain in the breast.
Breast Cancer Treatment
As with other forms of cancer, breast cancer treatment can be approached in numerous ways. In some cases, radiation therapy and chemotherapy are used to reduce the size of the cancerous growth. In other cases, breast surgery can be performed. This can be a full mastectomy, removing the entire breast, or a lumpectomy where parts of the breast tissue are removed to eliminate cancerous tissue.
If a patient has breast surgery, some like to pursue reconstructive surgery to augment the look of breasts post-mastectomy. This plastic surgery often involves the use of breast implants for partial or full breast reconstruction.
What Are Gynecological Cancers?
When we talk about gynecological cancers, we are talking about cancers that impact the female reproductive system. This can include:
- Ovarian cancer: Cancer found in the ovaries
- Uterine cancer: Cancer found in the uterus/uterine lining
- Cervical cancer: Cancer found in the cervix
- Vulvar cancer: Cancer found on the vulva/outer female genitalia.
Like breast cancer, these cancers are characterised by the rapid production and growth of cancer cells in the body, causing tumourous growth.
Gynecological Cancer Symptoms
While symptoms can vary depending on the specific cancer type, they typically all include:
- Pelvic region pain/pressure
- Changes to the skin on the vagina
- Unusual bumps or growths on/inside the vagina
- Increased pain in the back/stomach
- Unusual vaginal discharge/vaginal bleeding
- Changes to toilet habits (increased/decreased urination/bowel movements).
Gynecological Cancer Treatment
Like any cancer, gynecological cancer treatments will vary from patient to patient.
The most common therapy explored includes radiation therapy and chemotherapy, utilising these therapies to shrink/eradicate cancer cells in the body. In other cases, surgical intervention will be needed. This can include the partial removal of tumours, a hysterectomy (full removal of the uterus), or other surgeries in the pelvic region aimed at removing cancerous tissue from the body.
Types of Sexual Dysfunction Faced Post-Cancer
When people think about the kinds of issues they may face in recovery after surgery for breast cancer or cervical cancer, sexual dysfunction isn’t often on the list.
However, female cancer surgeries can greatly impact the functions of the female sexual organs. Whether surgery/treatment has happened to breast tissue or sexual organs in the pelvic region, their impacts can begin to infiltrate sexual function.
Thankfully, a pelvic physiotherapist can help! As many side effects post-surgery impact the pelvic region, pelvic physiotherapists are the best resource for learning more about your symptoms and pursuing treatment to help with recovery.
Let’s explore some of the common sexual dysfunction conditions people face post-cancer treatment and the specific ways your pelvic physiotherapist can work to address them.
Vaginal stenosis refers to the shortening/narrowing of the vagina, leading to increases in dryness and decreased flexibility. This often happens as a result of chemotherapy in the pelvic region.
When living with vaginal stenosis, women may experience discomfort during sexual intercourse, increased vaginal dryness, and pain/discomfort during pelvic exams.
How Will Pelvic Physio Help?
A pelvic physiotherapist has a number of different treatments to help with vaginal stenosis, reducing tension/discomfort. These include:
- Education: A physiotherapist can help you understand symptoms and educate you on the use of lubricants/dilators.
- Dilator therapy: Using dilators in increasing sizes to exercise/stretch the vagina.
- Pelvic floor therapy: Used to reduce pelvic floor tension for easier intercourse.
- Vaginal pH Optimization: Identifying your vaginal pH and making diet changes to adjust it, helping with vaginal dryness/overall vaginal health.
General sexual dysfunction can be common after cancer surgery, especially for those dealing with gynecological cancers.
Symptoms include pain, vaginal dryness, and a loss of sensation that can lead to difficulties with sexual intercourse. Plus, changes to body image, the emotional impact of cancer recovery, and other changes in recovery can lead to problems achieving orgasm or changes in sexual libido.
How Will Pelvic Physio Help?
Those living with sexual dysfunction following surgery may be worried it cannot be changed. However, there are ways physio can help! A pelvic physiotherapist can introduce the following:
- Pelvic floor training: Strengthening the pelvic floor can improve strength/blood flow in the pelvic region, addressing any lack of sensation, pain, dryness, or libido changes.
- Release wands: A physiotherapy tool to address pelvic floor muscle tension, improving blood flow and reducing tension/pain/discomfort.
- Vibration therapy: Works to activate the pelvic floor, improving strength and activating muscles.
Axillary Web Syndrome
Axillary web syndrome is a common treatment side effect for those recovering from breast cancer. With this condition, breast cancer patients will feel thick, corded structures under the skin, normally starting in the armpit and going down the length of the arm. Symptoms include:
- Feeling rope-like structures in the underarm/armpit/shoulder down the arm
- Limited ability to move the arm
- Tightness/stiffness in the shoulder/armpit region
People dealing with axillary web syndrome often struggle to lift their arms due to stiffness/tightness. While it mainly impacts the ability to move the arm, we want to acknowledge the impact this can have on a person’s sexual function, too. With arm stiffness, pain, and limited movement, some will experience a loss of libido and self-esteem, impacting sexual function.
How Will Pelvic Physio Help?
Pelvic physiotherapy can do wonders to address axillary web syndrome. The main treatment for this will be physiotherapy exercises to improve arm movement and function. With proper time and treatments, you can regain full arm function!
Seek Support Today from Sydney Pelvic Clinic
Sexual dysfunction can feel embarrassing or too private to discuss, but it is more common than you’d think. Thousands of people feel the impacts of cancer treatment and recovery every year, with many dealing with sexual dysfunction during recovery.
If this is you, you are not alone, and treatment options do exist that can help! Pelvic physiotherapists, like the team here at Sydney Pelvic Clinic, have plenty of amazing treatments and resources that can help you move past post-cancer sexual dysfunction.
To learn more, click here and book an appointment with us today!