All who have been diagnosed or are going through treatment for breast cancer, know it can be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. Breast cancer is just one of many cancers that can bring hardship to 1 in 8 women through the course of their lifetime.1
Advances in technology, screening, and the treatment of breast cancer have improved the survival rate for many patients over the past two decades. As a result, there are nearly three million breast cancer survivors in the United States.2 Some treatments for breast cancer could include chemotherapy or endocrine therapy. Although these are lifesaving treatments, there are short and long-term side effects that could impair one’s quality of life. One side effect breast cancer survivors are learning about on their own is vaginal atrophy.
What Causes Vaginal Atrophy?
One of the side effects for the treatment of breast cancer is medical menopause. This means that your body will be pushed into menopause before its biologically scheduled time. Medical menopause can be temporary or permanent depending on what treatment is being used. During menopause, the ovaries will stop functioning and hormone levels fall. If menopause is induced surgically, the symptoms can be more intense especially for younger women.
For most breast cancer patients, chemotherapy is used to destroy the fast-dividing cancer cells. Although this is a lifesaving treatment, it can also harm your ovaries, which contain cells that produce eggs.2 After treatment, it is normal to skip periods or could even stop menstruating altogether. This happens because levels of estrogen and progesterone fall, which is what causes hot flash symptoms. For some woman, medical menopause could be temporary, but depending on the type of cancer and treatment, menopause can be permanent.
Another common side effect of menopause, whether medically induced or natural, is vaginal atrophy. Vaginal atrophy happens when there are decreased levels of circulating estrogen to urinary and vaginal receptors.1 The vaginal walls will become thin, dry and will be inflamed due to the lack of estrogen in your body.3
Symptoms of moderate to severe vaginal atrophy:
Burning with urination
Urgency with urination
Urinary tract infections
Light bleeding after intercourse
Discomfort with intercourse
Decreased vaginal lubrication during sexual activity
Shortening and tightening of the vaginal canal
What can you do?
Studies show that vaginal atrophy has a negative impact on quality of life, sexuality and intimacy. The problems associated with vaginal atrophy can be bothersome to any woman with, or without partners, and with or without sexual activity. Normally vaginal atrophy will occur between four to five years after a woman’s last menstrual cycle. When drug-induced menopause is forced then the severity of vaginal atrophy can happen at a faster rate. It is also more likely to be overlooked and under diagnosed by medical professionals.
For some women suffering from vaginal atrophy the normal treatment would be with estrogen or another hormone replacement therapy. Most breast cancer survivors have a restriction on the use of hormones, which makes the treatment of vaginal atrophy challenging. Although there are some lifestyle changes that can be made to help reduce the painful symptoms, studies show that lifestyle modification is insufficient in reversing damage already done to the vaginal walls. Lifestyle changes include stress management and not smoking. Cuddling and masturbation, help improve blood flow, which with the use of lubrication can help decrease painful symptoms.
The Difference Between Vaginal Health and Sexual Lubrication
For vaginal health, non-hormonal therapies are an option for women who cannot have estrogen as a replacement therapy. The goal is to improve the pH of the vagina, control pain, rejuvenate the tissue, and restore tissue elasticity by using a safe organic moisturizer. This can be achieved with the daily use of a vaginal perle inserted into the vagina each night while you sleep.
For sexual health, vaginal lubricants are shorter acting and have no effect on the pH of the vagina. Lubricants are used to reduce friction and irritation during sexual activity but do not help with the long-term need for moisturizing.
The vaginal walls are made for self-cleaning with the proper numbers of healthy bacteria. Some chemical lubricants and moisturizers contain ingredients that will kill your healthy bacteria. Finding an organic form of lubrication and moisturizers will reduce the unhealthy risk to your vagina. When searching for sexual or vaginal support it is always important to remember, if it is safe enough to eat, it is safe enough to put into your vagina.
Time to Act
Natural or hormonal vaginal therapy should be decided on an individual basis with the help of your treating professional physician. It is important to understand the pros and cons of vaginal therapy for any women with or without breast cancer. Anything you put in your body will be absorbed through the vaginal walls and travel throughout your system. Keep in mind that organic or non-chemical moisturizers are the safest for vaginal atrophy treatment.
A breast cancer diagnosis and treatment is a life changing journey. Side effects from the treatment can be challenging but are manageable with the proper support. Vaginal atrophy is one side effect that not many women will know to prepare for. Using a natural moisturizer can help with the pain associated with dryness. Using natural lubricants help with pain during intimacy. With the support of your doctor or naturopath, and a few life style modifications, vaginal atrophy can be managed and even reversed.