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  • Looking after yourself after treatment for vulvar or vaginal cancer

    Last reviewed October 2014


    Cancer can cause physical and emotional strain. Eating well, exercising and relaxing may help reduce stress and improve well-being.

    Addressing changes in your emotions and relationships early on is also very important.

    Effect on your emotions

    Most women feel shocked and upset about having cancer in one of the most intimate and private areas of their body. It is normal to experience a wide variety of emotions including anger, fear and resentment. These feelings may become stronger as you cope with the physical side effects of radiotherapy, surgery or chemotherapy.

    Everyone has their own ways of coping with their emotions. Some people find it helpful to talk to friends or family, while others seek professional help from a specialist nurse or counsellor. Others prefer to keep their feelings to themselves.

    You may find the closeness of your relationship with your partner is affected.

    There is no right or wrong way to cope. Help is available if you need it. It is important to give yourself, your partner, family and friends time to deal with the emotions that cancer can cause. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information and support.

    Healthy eating

    Eating nutritious food will help you to keep as well as possible and cope with cancer and treatment side effects.

    Depending on your treatment you may have special dietary needs. A dietitian can help you to plan the best foods for your situation. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information about nutrition.

    Being active

    You will probably find it helpful to stay active and to exercise regularly if you can. Physical activity – even if gentle or for a short duration – helps to improve circulation, reduce tiredness and elevate mood.

    The amount and type of exercise you do will depend on what you are used to, how well you feel and what your doctor advises. If you have had surgery you should talk to your medical team before doing any vigorous or weight-bearing exercise. When you are able you can make small changes to your daily activities like walking to the shops or gardening.

    Changing body image

    Cancer treatment can change the way you feel about yourself. Even though most people will not see your genital area, changes to its appearance may make you feel self-conscious or less confident.

    Give yourself time to adapt to any changes. Try to see yourself as a whole person (body, mind and personality) instead of focusing only on the parts of you that have changed.

    Sexuality, intimacy and cancer

    Having cancer can affect your sexuality in both physical and emotional ways.

    Treatment for gynaecological cancer can cause physical side effects such as scarring, narrowing of the vagina, swelling and soreness. These side effects can affect your sexual response and you may have to explore different ways to orgasm or climax.

    However for most women, sex is more than arousal, intercourse and orgasms. It involves feelings of intimacy and acceptance as well as being able to give and receive love.

    It can be difficult to talk about your sexual needs, fears or worries with your sexual partner especially if you meet a new partner during or after treatment. However you may be surprised and encouraged by your partner’s understanding, tenderness and love when you open up about what you have experienced.

    Cancer may reduce your desire for sex. It may take some months after treatment before you begin to desire and enjoy sexual activity. Don’t be surprised if you feel very unsure about it. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for more information about sexuality and intimacy or visit rekindleonline.org.au.

    • Talk to your doctor about ways to prevent or reduce side effects that affect your sex life.
    • Let your partner know if you don’t feel like having sex or if you find penetration uncomfortable.
    • Apply a vaginal moisturiser two to three times a week to help keep vaginal tissue supple and lubricated. Talk to your doctor about hormone cream if the moisturisers are not enough. These are available on prescription but may not be suitable for everyone.
    • Use a vaginal dilator to keep the vagina open as instructed by your medical team.
    • Use plenty of water-based lubricant and try different sexual positions.
    • Talk about your feelings with your sexual partner, a sexual therapist or a counsellor.

    Information reviewed by: Prof Jonathan Carter, Head Gynaecologic Oncology, Chris O’Brien Lifehouse, Professor of Gynaecological Oncology, University of Sydney, and Head Gynaecologic Oncology, Royal Prince Alfred Hospital, NSW; Ellen Barlow, Gynaecological Oncology Clinical Nurse Consultant, Gynaecological Cancer Centre, The Royal Hospital for Women, NSW; Jason Bonifacio, Practice Manager/ Chief Radiation Therapist, St Vincent’s Clinic, Radiation Oncology Associates and Genesis Cancer Care, NSW; Wendy Cram, Consumer; Kim Hobbs, Social Worker, Gynaecology Oncology, Westmead Hospital, and Chair COSA Social Work Group, NSW; Lyndal Moore, Consumer; Pauline Tanner, Cancer Nurse Coordinator, Gynaecological Cancer, WA Cancer and Palliative Care Network, WA.

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