Getting Back On Track After Cancer Treatment

Contributed by: James Whiteside, MD, MA, FACOG, FACSAssociate Professor of Obstetrics & Gynecology

Cancer is hard. There’s no way around that. When a patient faces a cancer diagnosis, treatment becomes top priority however, treatment comes with side effects. Often these include sexual health issues and/or pelvic floor problems. Although a cancer diagnosis and one’s journey through treatment and recovery is unique, sexual and pelvic floor issues are common for many.

Talk About Quality of Life Issues

Sexual health and pelvic floor conditions affect quality of life and many cancer survivors experience some form of these with treatment. Whether it’s reduced sensations, lack of desire, altered body image, vaginal dryness, painful intercourse or accidental bladder leakage, a health care specialist understands and can help. While it might be hard for some women to talk about these concerns, there are benefits.

Treatment Comes with Side Effects

When it comes to a cancer diagnosis, one of the biggest misconceptions is pelvic floor conditions affect only those diagnosed with cancers of the reproductive organs, bladder or rectum. However, other cancers can be a trigger:

  • Breast Cancer — hormonal therapies can dry out vaginal or urethral tissues and lead to incontinence.
  • Lung/Esophageal Cancer — a chronic cough can overwhelm weakened muscles involved in maintaining continence.
  • Brain or Spinal Cord Tumors — these can impact the nerves that control bladder or pelvic muscles.

The side effects of certain cancer treatments can also cause bladder or bowel problems:

  • Nausea and vomiting can occur during some treatments leading to stress urine leakage.
  • Surgery or radiation therapy to the pelvis (including reproductive organs, the bladder, rectum) can lead to effects on storage and evacuation of urine or bowel contents.
  • Some types of chemotherapy can also affect the tissues that make up the bladder and bowels leading to problems.
  • Some treatments can reduce the amount of hormones the body makes.
  • These changes can include early menopause, hot flashes, and problems with the vagina or bladder.

Take Care of Yourself

Even after cancer treatment and recovery hurdles pass, cancer survivorship is a process that millions face. Remember, one of the best paths to good health is to take steps to control your health. Bowel, bladder, or sexual health problems are among the most upsetting issues encountered after cancer treatment.

Sexual problems can affect both the cancer patient and the loved one. Remember, talk openly with your partner. The process of returning to intimacy after cancer can be challenging. Stay positive; there are a number of helpful strategies available to help reclaim intimacy after cancer treatment.

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