There are very few known illnesses that cause more dread and fear than cancer. According to the National Cancer Institute, approximately 1,762,450 new cancer cases will be diagnosed by the end of 2019, and there will be about 606,880 cancer deaths. Just about everyone has somehow been affected by the disease. It’s not just death that people fear, though. It’s also the treatment.
Radiotherapy & Cervical Cancer
Chemotherapy and radiation are uncomfortable, and they can cause their own side effects and come with their own risks. They also can cause permanent or semi-permanent changes to your body even after all traces of cancer disappear. For people who’ve had radiotherapy to treat cervical cancer, pelvic radiation disease (PRD) is a possible side-effect (PRD is also referred to commonly as “late effects” or “long-term side effects”). Its symptoms can range from mild to severe. Because of how many symptoms there are, and how many women do not report their discomfort, it is difficult to estimate how many women are affected by PSD after cervical cancer treatment. There have, however, been small surveys collected, and one found that 46% of women surveyed said they suffered from bowel or bladder changes that affected their quality of life, 56% noticed changes in their sex life, and about 40% suffered from pain. For those women who have reported their vaginal pain, many specialists recommend using a vaginal dilator for pelvic radiation recovery.
Radiotherapy utilizes high amounts of energy to destroy cancer cells, and the rays themselves can be administered externally or internally, or both. It’s common for the therapy to damage healthy cells close to the cancer site, which the body then tries to repair (as is the normal immune response). Most discomfort caused by this initial reaction is transient. Researchers think the long-term effects of PRD on the vagina (and often bladder and bowel as well) are also caused by the body’s own healing response that continues after radiotherapy ends. This perpetual inflammation can damage the blood vessels’ ability to carry adequate blood to surrounding organs. These organs then become thick and scarred, hindering their ability to function properly. Ovaries are often affected by such fibrosis, for example, which means noticeable hormone changes in pre-menopausal women. Lower estrogen levels mean the vagina can become dry and become a source of pain during sex. The PSD can cause scarring in the vagina itself, often causing shortening and tightening of vaginal muscles. Radiation can also make the sensitive vaginal tissue thin and easily damaged—not exactly a recipe for fun in the bedroom.
Enjoy Sex Again
Many women tell themselves that they’re happy to give up sexual pleasure if it means they can be cancer-free. Chronic pelvic pain seems like an acceptable trade-off. That being said, there is nothing wrong with you for wanting to enjoy sex again. It’s not a selfish desire. And that’s where vaginal dilators come in. Dilators are the approximate size and shape of tampons and can be used at many stages of healing to help elongate and widen the vagina. Regularly using a BioMoi vaginal dilator for pelvic radiation recovery can even help prevent scar tissue from forming. It can increase blood flow and help heal the top of the vagina also. If more time has already passed, and your vagina has already narrowed, dilation can open the vagina and break down some of that scar tissue. Not only that, but if you’ve lived with the pain for a while, your brain has likely learned to associate penetration with pain, which can cause involuntary muscle tightening at the mere thought of vaginal touch. Regular dilation therapy by a trained physical therapist can not only help the physical symptoms but also deprogram that fear response.
Preventatively, the dilator can be used starting about two weeks after radiation therapy has ended. But you should always consult with your physician first. Like any physical therapy, slow and steady wins the race. And trust us, the patience is worth it. Daily use is often recommended for the first two months after radiation. Slowly, you’ll be able to increase in size, which is not only good news for your sex life, but also for your next pelvic exam and all-around daily comfort. Vaginal dilators don’t need to be used in a clinical setting, but getting help from a professional is always a great place to start. As always, if you have any questions or are worried about the level of pain you’re experiencing, contact your doctor immediately.
Being free from cancer is worth celebrating. That kind of gratitude does not necessarily need to come with a life of pain and discomfort, however. A solution as simple as routinely using a vaginal dilator for pelvic radiation recovery might be exactly what you need to experience that quality of life you remember before cancer.