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Sex and Cancer: What Women Should Know

  • Cancer and its treatments can trigger many changes to a woman’s body, and these changes may affect a patient’s sex life. It’s an all-too-common problem that many women are nervous to talk about, but it’s important to ask questions and seek answers. While these changes may be concerning, many of the most common sexual problems affecting female cancer patients can be improved.

    Finding Your Voice

    For a variety of reasons, sex can change for women after they undergo certain cancer treatments (such as surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation). And, while this is a common occurrence, many individuals feel uncomfortable discussing it with others.

    “Women don’t talk about it with each other, so many don’t realize that their concerns are relatively common and valid,” said Cynthia A. Bergman, MD, a gynecologic oncologist and Director of Fox Chase Cancer Center’s Women’s Menopausal and Sexual Health Program. “They think they’re the only one with the problem. Maybe they’re embarrassed or not sure if anyone can help them.”

    While it may be uncomfortable to discuss changes in your sex life with others, Bergman highly recommends that women experiencing unwanted changes in their sexual health bring it up with their oncology care team. Your providers are there to support your health in its entirety, and even if they do not have the answer to your specific concern, they can refer you to another clinician who will have the solution. Your care team wants the best for you in all aspects of your life, and that includes your sexual health.

    Common Sexual Side Effects and Solutions

    One of the most common sexual issues female cancer patients report, Bergman said, is vaginal dryness or atrophy. This is a normal change for many women as estrogen levels drop after menopause, but the thinning of vaginal tissue and the subsequent discomfort can be exacerbated by radiation therapy or hormone-suppressing chemotherapy. There are various products (including moisturizers and lubricants) that can help individuals with vaginal dryness. Talking with your care team can get you on the right path toward finding the best option for you.

    Another common issue faced by cancer patients is narrowing of the vagina due to certain treatments. This can be alleviated with the use of vaginal dilators, which can help maintain tissue health and the caliber of the vagina.

    Negative body image is also something that women with cancer often face. Certain treatments can lead to physical changes to your body and appearance, which can be difficult to come to terms with and can cause a sense of disconnection from yourself. Addressing physical issues, like vaginal dryness or narrowing, can help women feel more at ease in their bodies. It can also be helpful to seek out a mental health professional to talk through concerns and feelings about sudden and unexpected changes to your appearance.

    Seeking Support

    If you are experiencing any of the problems above, the best first step is to talk to your oncology care team about your concerns and symptoms. They will either be able to recommend treatment or refer you to a provider who can offer additional support.

    At Fox Chase, we offer a program that provides support for sexual concerns during and after cancer treatment. Fox Chase’s Women’s Menopausal and Sexual Health Program is designed to provide women with a place where they can talk freely and frankly about sexual difficulties and find medically appropriate solutions that work for them.

    “They can talk about anything they want in my office,” Bergman said. “It’s just girls in here—we’re just a group of girls helping each other.”

    To make an appointment with Fox Chase’s Women’s Menopausal and Sexual Health Program, call 888-369-2427.