Ovarian cancer patients often have questions about their post-surgery sex lives that need to be answered. Questions of intimacy are hard to formulate and can be embarrassing to ask. But they are questions that can be crucial to living a happy and fulfilled life after surgery.
When posed with questions about post-surgery sex, Dr. Elizabeth Jewell, Gynecologic Surgeon at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, says, “There will be a chapter before cancer and a chapter after, so I can’t say it’s ever the same, but what I emphasize to patients is that we will find a new normal with a very high quality of life.”
Women who have undergone surgery to remove ovarian cancer often have to combat issues with sexuality. These problems often stem from vaginal dryness that results from removal of the uterus, shortening of the vagina due to a prolapse of the vaginal walls following removal of the cervix, and body image issues due to an ostomy bag that is sometimes put in place after intestinal surgery.
Post-surgery, women can also experience difficulty becoming aroused and a recession of sexual desire.
All of these are serious problems that patients may experience post surgery. These problems, however, often have solutions.
“I will say that the majority of patients with moisturizers and lubricants and counseling can find an incredibly high sexual functioning and satisfaction and high quality of life,” says Dr. Jewell.
Lubrications and moisturizers will aid with the vaginal dryness that often follows surgery. Pelvic floor exercises, such as Kegel exercises, will allow the walls of the vagina to become strengthened so vaginal shortening/prolapsing can be ameliorated.
Women experiencing the aftermath of cancer surgery may also be encouraged to change up their sexual habits, setting aside practices that may have become more difficult and exploring new avenues of sexuality. For instance, women may want to experiment with mutual masturbation or oral sex if vaginal intercourse has lost some of its pleasures. They may also want to set aside their preferred sex positions in favor of new ones that better accommodate their post-surgery selves.
Furthermore, sex therapists stress that sexual pleasure is much more than traditional “penis-in-vagina sex”. Couples looking to reignite their sex life after the woman undergoes ovarian cancer surgery may choose to find new and creative ways to foster sexual intimacy. The experts encourage being imaginative and having fun. One option is using sex toys for adult games as well as engaging in non-penetrative sexual play involving intercrural sex, frottage and sensual massage.
Seeking out support groups and mental health professionals can aid with body image issues by allowing patients to interact with people who are going through similar problems or are familiar with them.
Foundations all across the country are dedicated to helping women combat these issues and to making positive impacts on their lives. Organizations like The National Ovarian Cancer Coalition have made it their missions to reach out to patients in need of support, often aiming to improve the quality of life for survivors through support groups. This is just one of the many ways patients can seek help to better their sex lives after surgery.
“The parts on the inside are very rarely missed,” says Dr. Jewell, “You can have your uterus removed and still feel like a whole person.”
Survivors can turn to experimentation with lubricants and moisturizers, exercises to strengthen their bodies, and counseling for confidence and strength to achieve a fulfilled sex life after surgery. Most importantly, women are strongly encouraged to be open and honest about their sexual needs post-surgery, and to avoid responding to their situations with silent shame.
Surgery is one of the first lines of treatment for ovarian cancer, the goal being to remove as much of the tumor as possible. The manner of surgery largely depends on how far the tumor has spread. Most ovarian cancer patients also undergo chemotherapy as part of their initial treatment. Therefore another question for women to work out with their gynecologic oncologist: do they undergo chemotherapy before or after surgery?
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