There’s a long list of things nobody warns you about when you go through cancer treatment. It is fairly well known that chemotherapy, radiation therapy and significant surgery all carry risks and side effects but when your life hangs in the balance most people will agree to anything. I did.
My biggest shocks were the residual peripheral neuropathy, the brain fog, the extent to which losing my nipples impacted my intimacy, and the way chemotherapy slams you into menopause. Think ten hot sweats a night that are so bad I needed to keep towels under me and change them.
The neuropathy has been accommodated. It’s just like having mild pins and needles in your hands and feet and as long as I keep warm it’s not too painful. The brain fog has taken some work, but I have recovered my pre-cancer brain. The hot sweats have subsided to one or two a night and they are much less sever. I have grieved the loss of my nipples. Acceptance is the only help there.
My last visit to the GP included a regular pap smear. ‘You have evidence of vaginal atrophy’ he told me in that voice that sounds like he’s reporting the weather. Cloudy with a chance of incontinence and infection. I’d never heard of it before. It’s apparently a common side effect of menopause and like all other treatment related symptoms, it has arrived with a vengeance.
I hit the internet (of course) and discovered that vaginal atrophy can make intercourse difficult and painful, urinary incontinence more likely and can also increase the incidence of thrush and urinary tract infection. Oh joy! I also noticed something that wasn’t anywhere on the internet. It’s really difficult to find a toilet paper that doesn’t suddenly shed and leave a residue. This product is obviously designed for a self-lubricating vagina and nobody has thought to let manufacturers know about post-menopausal difficulties with their products.
The usual treatment for vaginal atrophy is apparently some kind of hormonal cream or hormone replacement therapy, but having had breast cancer (even the non-hormonal kind) my doctor wasn’t keen. He recommended a non-hormonal vaginal lubricant available from the chemist. It’s inserted using a plastic tube every three or so days. It costs about three dollars per tube. Unfortunately it doesn’t reverse vaginal atrophy. It just makes things a bit more comfortable. It is also sticky and might all come out at once when you least expect it. It’s better than nothing but not ideal.
One site I found recommended sex or masturbation on a daily basis. Ah the bitter irony that menopause chews up libido and spits out sexual activity as a treatment for side effects. My previously healthy interest in orgasms has been reduced to an occasional distraction. My husband and I are still loving and affectionate but like so many others in our position, intimacy has become more important than intercourse.
Meanwhile, my ability to urinate has become complicated. Clearly good vaginal lubrication was part of the whole process working properly and I now find myself trying to figure out how to keep the flow heading downwards and not across my thighs. I know this is odd and perhaps distasteful stuff to write about but that is exactly why I’m going there. It’s good to know you’re not alone.
Recently I was looking for a good gynaecologist (for someone else) and came across an article about laser therapy for vaginal atrophy. The same technology that is used to improve your wrinkles can be used to improve the tone and thickness of the vaginal walls. After months of enduring the slow collapse of my vaginal tone I headed back to my GP to ask him about it. “Oh yes, apparently it’s quite effective,” he tells me, as I resist the urge to growl at him for not giving me information about this treatment six months ago. Does he just assume I don’t plan on using my vagina anymore?
The treatment is marketed in Australia as Mona Lisa Touch Therapy. I’m amused to think that it’s supposed to give me an enigmatic smile as well as a return to vaginal health. It will involve an initial visit with a gynaecologist to determine if I am ‘suitable’ for the treatment at a cost (after rebate) of around $170. If I’m approved as suitable, each laser treatment will cost (after rebate) around $260. I should see some improvement after the first treatment but for the optimal result three treatments are recommended. I haven’t checked, but I’m guessing my health fund will not pick up the slack. I still think it’s worth having. I’m booked in for my initial visit next Monday.
I’ll keep you posted on the results.