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SYLK HEALTH EDUCATION

S.(H.E.) SYLK® Health Education is a Special Educational
Blog Series on Intimacy Health and Wellness

Intimacy After Cancer

Chemotherapy, hormone therapy, radiation, and surgery are the most common methods used as treatments for various cancer diagnoses. All of these treatments can have long term effects on fertility, sexual desire and function for women (click here to see the American Cancer Society’s information on how treatments affect fertility in women).

According to Dr. Michael Krychman, SYLK’s Chief Medical Advisor, more than 90 percent of cancer patients experience sexual side effects relating to their treatment. Often times with patients who are adjusting to life after cancer, sexual health and wellness simply becomes an afterthought. If you are going or have gone through treatment for cancer and have been have struggled with intimacy, you are not alone, there is hope, and you don’t need to suffer in silence anymore.

Cancer treatment can have both emotional and physical effects on a person that are often hard to discuss with both partners and trusted healthcare providers. Below are some of the common effects cancer treatment can have on women’s sexual functions.

Emotional

The emotional reaction to treatment can bring about negative feelings that typically start with the physical changes that come from radiation, surgery, and chemo/hormone therapy. Chemotherapy can deplete a patient’s energy and can reduce the number of endorphins released in the brain, which can thwart sexual inclinations. It is not uncommon for women to experience the following after cancer treatment:

  • Sad or depressed feelings/emotions
  • Concerns about changes in looks/outside appearances
  • Loss of desire for sex
  • Negative thoughts during sex
  • Difficulty feelings pleasure, sexual excitement, and reaching climax

Physical

Half of survivors of breast cancer and other cancers that affect the pelvic region (i.e. cervix, ovaries, uterus, bladder, colon or vaginal) develop long-term sexual problems that are most often caused by the treatment itself according to the LIVESTRONG Foundation (click here to see the article). One of the common effects of various cancer treatments in female patients is that it can often induce early menopause for women or menopause like symptoms (to read our article on menopause and the potential changes it can have on sex, click here).  

These symptoms can include:

  • Hot flashes
  • Vaginal dryness
  • Vaginal tightness
  • Irregular or no menstrual periods
  • Thinning of the vaginal walls/lining

So what can be done?

Many women feel the need to bury down the emotional and physical toll that various treatments can take on their body. Dr. Saketh Guntupalli, who is a University of Colorado School of Medicine gynecologic oncologist, recently wrote a book titled “Sex and Cancer” (click here to view) where he journeys through the stories of cancer survivors to highlight the potential pitfalls as well as opportunities that women have to regain control of their sex lives after cancer.

“The most important of them, is managing expectations about the nature and frequency of intimacy [with your partner], both in the days and weeks after treatment and in what can be a new normal in terms of intimacy and sex drive."

Dr. Guntupalli

Many partners are hesitant when it comes to re-engaging in sex often because they don’t want to cause a feeling of pressure or physical pain for you. Open communication with your partner and managing expectations on a frequent basis will relax not only your mind and body, but will also ease concerns that can be on your partners mind as well.

Just as important as it is to have open dialogues with your partner, it’s equally as important to be open to your healthcare provider. Sexual problems are common after cancer so speaking to your healthcare provider about when it is safe to have sex and being open about any negative emotional feelings can greatly give them the proper insight to help. If you are having apprehensions before engaging in sexual activity, your healthcare provider can recommend psychotherapists or specialists in sexual function/dysfunction and specifically those who have experience working with cancer survivors.

When it comes to some of the physical difficulties or barriers that can arise, there are some doctor-recommended treatments such as:

Hormone Replacement Therapy (HRT) or Estrogen treatment

Hormone replacement therapy replaces or supplements the estrogen that is no longer produced by the body naturally. This can be supplied in may forms including: Estrogen pills, Estrogen patches, Topical Estrogen, and Vaginal Estrogen. HRT or Estrogen treatment can help with symptoms of hot flashes and vaginal dryness however, because estrogen can promote cancers of the breast, uterus, and possibly the ovaries, providers are not likely to prescribe pills or patches for this treatment. The alternative delivery method that is more commonly prescribed are low doses of estrogen in gels, creams, rings, or tablets that can be put directly into the vagina meaning very gets into the bloodstream that could affect other parts of the body. These treatments are effective for some women however they can be costly for many and can come with unwanted side effects of their own (click here to see our blog on this topic)

Vibrators and Clitoral Therapy Devices

Easing into activities outside of sexual intercourse can help build confidence before engaging with your partner and can allow you to see how things are before jumping fully into bed. Handheld vibrators are cost effective tools that can aid in getting things started in the bedroom and can add extra stimulation that might be needed. Additionally, devices such as the Eros clitoral therapy device and the Fiera personal care device have been developed. These devices provide a gentle suction to increase blood flow to the area. The increased blood flow can increase pressure on the clitoral nerve providing relief and a kickstart to the bedroom activities. These devices too can be costly for women as they can cost hundreds of dollars upfront to purchase.

Vaginal Dilators

A vaginal dilator is a plastic or rubber tube used to enlarge (dilate) the vagina. These can be extremely useful for women that experience vaginal tightening often due to radiation or surgery in the pelvis, cervix, or vagina. The American Cancer Society describes vaginal dilators as feeling like putting in a large tampon for a few minutes and can keep your vagina from getting tight from scar tissue that may develop. Scarring can develop in the pelvis over many years after radiation and dilators such as those from Soul Source can be a useful tool for a long period of time.

Vaginal Lubricants

These products are the most recommended for added ease and comfort during sexual activity and to supplement the body’s lubrication. Typically, water-based lubricants are the preferred lubricant for women experiencing vaginal dryness. Products such as petroleum jelly, lotions, or other oil based lubricants are not recommended for vaginal lubricants after cancer treatment and can increase the risk for yeast infection for some women. While lubricants are not treatments for vaginal dryness, personal lubricants are a cost-effective solution for added comfort during sexual activity and to supplement the body’s natural lubrication. Choosing a lubricant can be an overwhelming decision and making sure to check if your lubricant is condom compatible, pH balanced, and FDA 510(k) Cleared are all important factors. Moreover, checking ingredients for harsh chemicals, parabens, hormones, spermicide, coloring, flavoring and added fragrances, all of which can be irritants to sensitive skin is also key in choosing a lubricant. SYLK Moisturizing Lubricant is specifically designed to mimic the body’s natural lubrication and is the only lubricant available on the market made from New Zealand kiwi vine extract. SYLK is pH balanced and contains only 8 safe and effective ingredients. The kiwi vine extract is the differentiating ingredient that makes SYLK ultra-slippery and has an abundance of polysaccharides which give SYLK its slick and smooth texture which mimics the body’s natural lubrication.

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