For eight years, I struggled with vaginismus — painful intercourse, involuntary muscle spasms and the inability to wear tampons. After long bouts of desperation, I visited a specialist who specifically worked with patients on this issue. I called in to make an appointment, and the staff reminded me that the doctor made patients who had cancer a priority — they would call me once a spot opened up.
Of course, my issue seemed minuscule in comparison, and I was more than willing to wait in the line. However, at the time, I had no idea that radiation and cancer treatment would affect patients by inflicting vaginismus. I found myself feeling pretty ignorant about the various consequences that cancers, specifically cervical, could impose on those in recovery.
James Maxwell, after losing his wife, Jo, to cervical cancer, began Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, which gives information to people affected by cervical cancer. Louise Dean, communications and public affairs assistant of the organization, says, “A cervical cancer diagnosis can affect sex and intimacy; in our survey, 90 percent of women said that they had experienced changes in their sex life as a result of cancer. There are some negative impacts, including a loss of desire, arousal difficulty, sexual pain and loss of sexual satisfaction or altered orgasm.”
Some of these physical effects may occur months or years after treatment for cervical cancer and can include:
- Feeling fatigued
- Changes to sex life
- Changes to fertility
- Bone problems
- Pelvic radiation disease
Moreover, depression, anxiety, lack of confidence and worry are emotional factors that can accompany recovery from cervical cancer.
“There are different types of treatment of cervical cancer depending on how developed the cancer is,” Dean explains. “Different treatment options will be discussed at diagnosis.” This means the treatment may affect patients differently, especially since both radiotherapy and chemotherapy can each have side effects.
Sex and intimacy can be greatly affected, as many women lose satisfaction and have sexual pain during intercourse after their treatment. Radiation treatment causes changes to the vagina that make the walls of the vagina more fragile, according to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust website. Scar tissue may begin forming, which reduces vaginal lubrication.
Similar to my vaginismus, our bodies react in a fight or flight way — the clenching of muscles and vaginal dryness create a complicated scenario when attempting penetration. For myself and for many people with sexual concerns after treatment, dilators are a great practice to incorporate into your sexual health recovery.
Pelvic radiation disease, according to Jo’s Cervical Cancer Trust, “affects the tissues and organs within the area of the pelvis […] The organs and tissues in the pelvis include the bowel, rectum, bladder and vagina. It can also affect the bones and lymph nodes. The physical symptoms caused by PRD may impact on a woman’s quality of life.” These consequences typically affect 46 percent of cervical cancer patients because the body understands it needs to fight back in order to heal its own immune system. Because of this, inflammation may occur, and diarrhea, blood in the stool or urine and difficulty controlling the bladder or bowels can be among the many issues.
Moreover, radiotherapy can induce menopause three months after treatment. Hot flashes, dry skin and loss of concentration are all possible side effects. In the World Journal of Gastrointestinal Surgery, researchers found that the burden of PRD-related symptoms have been underappreciated and therefore not managed properly.
As the main treatment for cervical cancer, radiation is typically done alone or followed by surgery. In other cases, radiation and chemo are used together. For cervical cancer that has returned or has spread, radiation therapy is utilized.
Many patients feel distressed or embarrassed over their side effects and do not tell their doctor — it’s imperative for medical professionals to be informed of all consequences in order to note concerns.
It’s already a feat to overcome cancer of any kind and the potentially debilitating and life-altering side effects should come with treatment that can ensure all survivors are getting the most out of their lives.