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What women need to know about sexual function and colorectal cancer


Women treated for colorectal cancer are at risk of side effects that impact sexual function and intimacy. Common side effects include:

  • Vaginal stenosis

  • Vaginal atrophy

  • Vaginal irritation
     

These side effects can occur as a result of surgery, radiation therapy, hormone therapy, chemotherapy, and other medications. Talk to your doctor before treatment about what to expect and how to manage side effects.  

Also, remember you’re not alone on this journey. Talk with other colorectal cancer patients and survivors in allytoally.org’s women’s group. 

What can I do to manage vaginal stenosis, atrophy, and irritation?

Vaginal dilation therapy

Gently stretch the vaginal walls by regularly using a device called a vaginal dilator. Speak with your healthcare provider before treatment begins.

Increase moisture

Vaginal stenosis often results in increased dryness in the vagina, so using a dedicated vaginal moisturizer could help to increase hydration. In addition to vaginal moisturizer, topical estrogen can be helpful. Talk to your doctor about what would work best for you. 

Relieve pain

If you’ve experienced any pain during attempted penetration, using a heat pack can reduce discomfort. A feminine cooling pad can be used hot or cold and tucked in your underwear for direct contact.

Penetration may become painful. Use a heat pack to reduce discomfort. A hot or cold feminine pad can be tucked in underwear for direct contact.

Pelvic floor therapy

Pelvic floor muscles may be affected permanently after surgery and/or radiation. Pelvic floor therapy reconditions pelvic floor muscles and can reduce pain. 

What kinds of specialists should I see if I’m experiencing sexual dysfunction?

A psychologist specializing in sexual rehabilitation counseling for women and couples

A gynecologist specializing in female sexual health

An endocrinologist who focuses on hormonal changes

A mental health provider can help you cope with the physical and emotional challenges of cancer and determine how to move forward, whether with a partner or looking for one. Look for a therapist with expertise in working with people with cancer and/or sexual and relationship issues.

Consult a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist to promote healing, reduce pain and improve quality of life.

Let's talk about the birds and bees, colorectal cancer style, and how treatment impacts sex and fertility. Join Marielle McLeod, Buddy Coordinator and stage III colon cancer survivor, and Kim Newcomer, Manager of N2Y and stage IV rectal cancer survivor, for an important discussion about what can be done to help preserve your sexual health during and after colorectal cancer.

Also joining us tonight are CRC survivors Jacen Roberts and Jennifer Ruddle!

What can I do to prevent ED?

Talk with your doctor

Your doctor can provide more information about sexual dysfunction. Discuss treatment options, including medications, implants, or devices that can facilitate an erection.
 
Radiation specialists have developed techniques that target just the rectum and avoid surrounding tissue, nerves and blood vessels essential to erectile function. Men diagnosed with young-onset colorectal cancer surgery may be candidates for nerve-sparing surgery. This technique causes little or no damage to those critical nerves needed to achieve an erection.

Talk with your partner

Let your partner know what works best for you. Be honest about your concerns and feelings. If you're silent about what you're experiencing, your partner may feel rejected. Your partner can offer vital support as you recover from cancer treatment.

What kinds of specialists should I see if I’m experiencing sexual dysfunction?

A psychologist specializing in sexual rehabilitation counseling for men and/or couples

A urologist with expertise in male sexual health can give you more information about causes of sexual dysfunction and recommend treatment.

An endocrinologist who focuses on hormonal changes

A mental health provider can help you cope with the physical and emotional challenges cancer brings and determine how to move forward, whether with a partner or looking for one. Look for a therapist with expertise in working with people with cancer and/or sexual and relationship issues.

Consult a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist to promote healing, reduce pain and improve quality of life.

Content has been developed in partnership with MSAC member Dr. Nina Sanford, MD.

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