How chemotherapy impacts intimacy and vulvo-vaginal health
The end of chemotherapy treatments marks a respite from the exhausting physical, mental and emotional journey of cancer. It’s a time to celebrate and it’s also a time to recover. Your post-chemo body can be unrecognizable. Now there is a new task of learning how to take care of this new body. Transitioning your body back to all facets of normal life can be challenging, especially when it comes to intimacy.
Sex may be the furthest thing from mind following the trials and tribulations of cancer. But it is a huge part of life: the life that survivors battle so hard for. The barriers to a good sex life caused by chemotherapy include premature menopause, vaginal dryness and atrophy and loss of libido. These challenges are daunting, but it’s important to remember that you’re not alone!
“We don’t know that other women are experiencing those issues,” said Arpi Hamilton, a triple-negative breast cancer survivor and Mrs. America 2020 “And we don’t know how to bring that up.”
“We’re all women, we all have the same basic parts, so the odds are high that any one woman is going to be the only one to experience an issue” said Traci Owen, an Oncology Sexual Health specialist and RN. “I want to give permission to seek help for that if they can’t find the answers on their own.”
It may be uncomfortable to speak to a professional about “bedroom activity” but sexual dysfunction as a result of the hard-fought battle with cancer is an issue that can affect your intimacy and overall mental health.
Owen insists that maintaining or improving vulvovaginal health is key to restoring interest in sexual activity.
“Until we can get your body in a healthy state, your brain is not going to buy into sexuality because as long as it hurts, this beautiful brain that scans the world for trouble is going to put up a flag and say, ‘this hurts so we’re not interested in that’,” said Owen.
Arpi Hamilton and her husband weren’t sexually intimate for two whole years during her treatments. Their experience gaining back the intimacy was “fun although challenging.”
“When you’re living in a body that no longer looks like itself and you no longer feel like yourself, you can’t turn your brain off to it,” said Hamilton.
Hamilton emphasized that open and honest communication with your intimate partner is the best first step in reestablishing intimacy. Hamilton had to teach her husband what was different about her body and establish new boundaries and sensitivities to avoid residual pain.
“Teaching him this new me was big,” said Hamilton.
Owen affirmed the importance of communication as a way to reestablish the sexual spark between couples. She encourages couples to practice “sensate focus,” by exploring each other's bodies to help reorient what feels good and what doesn’t.
“These women have completely stepped out of their bodies to survive,” said Owen. “It’s a very soft way of reestablishing connection together and re-familiarizing with that body.”
Learning what’s changed about the body is important. It’s not surprising that this new body comes with different limitations or issues. Unfortunately, there is often shame surrounding sexual dysfunction such as vaginal dryness or vaginal atrophy.
“It’s a taboo subject. Why? I don’t know. We all have one.” said Hamilton.
Daily moisturizing of the vulvovaginal area can be a simple, hormone-free solution to vaginal dryness.
“Lubrication is key,” said Hamilton. “We were not taught to moisturize our vaginas the way we were for the rest of our bodies.” According to Arpi, “since I began using the Satisfem Gel, I’ve noticed the dryness has begun to subside. The Satisfaite moisturizer also acts as a lubricant and I have noticed that with daily use, intimacy is more enjoyable and I’m not spending the next day recovering.”
“I like products with hyaluronic acid in them. Hyaluronic acid helps the cells hold more moisture so they’re plumper. It also helps to stimulate the growth of healthy cells.” said Owen. “I recommend the use of moisturizers containing hyaluronic acid and vitamin E which is what led me to the FemmePharma product line. I appreciate that this company is focused on promoting the health of women seeking bold and unique products for our body.” Traci Owen also suggests inviting your partner to be involved in the process of vulvovaginal care.
“Bring the partner in as part of the preparations. Be part of helping her to remember to use her vaginal hydration 3 times a week. Be part of that with her, work that into part of your foreplay as preparing her body for this time together,” said Owen. “If he gets to be part of that, he knows exactly where she’s at in it.”
Sexual intimacy after chemotherapy is a physical and mental feat that requires the commitment of both partners to restore. Don’t sacrifice a good sex life because an issue is embarrassing or uncomfortable to talk about. Reach out to your survivorship provider for referrals to experts like Traci Owen or join support groups online with a network of women who are experiencing the same issues.
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