Radical changes to a patient’s body are not often discussed when detailing cervical cancer treatment.
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 Dr. Lindau put patients who had cancer as 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 queue. 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. According to their sex and relationship survey, “90% of women said they had experienced changes in their sex life as a result of cervical cancer. Some felt it had improved, but over half of women were not satisfied with how things are now.”
Some of these physical effects may occur months of years after treatment 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 be accompanied with the recovery of cervical cancer.
Jo’s Cervical Trust write that, “you may find that you do experience some short term side effects that begin to appear two to three weeks after the start of treatment and can come on quite gradually. In some cases radiotherapy in the pelvic area can also go on to cause longer term side effects that may being many months or years after the treatment has ended.”
Sex and intimacy can be greatly effected 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 website. Scar tissue may begin forming which reduces vaginal lubrication. Similar to my vaginismus, our body’s react in a fight or flight way—the clenching of muscles and vaginal dryness creates 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 (PRD) is assigned to a number of complicated symptoms: menopause, the swelling of limbs, or bowel and bladder problems. These consequences typically affect 46% of patients due to the body’s understanding that it needs to fight back in order to heal its own immune system. Because of this, inflammation may occur and diarrhea, blood in stool or urine, and difficulty controlling your 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 PRD can disrupt “the burden of PRD-related symptoms, which impact on a patient’s quality of life, has been under appreciated and sub-optimally managed” which goes on to explain the radically changes that cancer treatment can impose on an individual’s body and overall well being.
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 affects 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 to live with debilitating and life altering consequences should come with treatment that can ensure that all survivors are getting the most out of their livelihood.