Caring for yourself after cervical cancer
Life after cervical cancer treatment can be full of changes and challenges.
You probably faced many difficulties as you made your way through diagnosis and treatment. But you may not have had the time or energy to think: What happens next?
You may feel like you're entering unknown territory. Your body may have changed. You may feel sad or worried. And you may also be making major changes to your lifestyle to help prevent a recurrence of cancer.
Here are a few suggestions for adjusting to the physical and emotional changes to come in the months and years after treatment.
Coping with physical changes
The effects of cancer treatment on your body may linger after the disease is gone.
Some of these changes will get better as your body heals. Others may be more long-lasting.
Two common physical changes women face after cervical cancer are:
Premature menopause. If you've had a hysterectomy, you will no longer have menstrual periods or be able to become pregnant. Women who have their ovaries removed during surgery will experience premature menopause. This may also be caused by radiation treatments.
Hot flashes and other potential menopause symptoms may be especially severe for women who have premature menopause. Your doctor can advise you about strategies to help alleviate these symptoms.
Discomfort during sex. You can probably resume sexual intercourse four to six weeks after surgery, according to the Foundation for Women's Cancer (FWC), but you may experience pain or discomfort during intercourse in the months after treatment because radiation can cause a narrowing of the vagina, and hysterectomy may shorten the vaginal canal.
Your doctor may recommend the use of a dilator to help stretch your vagina or local hormone therapy to treat dryness and pain.
These tips from the FWC may also help ease sexual discomfort:
- Use water-soluble vaginal lubricants or moisturizers to help overcome dryness.
- Try different sexual positions. Some may be more comfortable than others.
- Place pillows under your knees or behind the small of your back.
- If you aren't interested in intercourse, try other forms of intimacy.
Seeking emotional support
After treatment ends you may feel an initial feeling of relief, but you might also feel sad or worried.
You may wonder what to do now, or you may fear a recurrence, says Mark Einstein, MD, chair of the FWC's cervical cancer education efforts.
There are many places to turn for emotional support, such as family members; counselors and psychologists; support groups; advocacy groups, such as the FWC and the American Cancer Society (ACS); and clergy or religious leaders.
You can also get emotional support from loved ones. When people offer to help, give them specific tasks. In addition, you may want to plan what you'll say about your cancer. No single approach is the right one; find what makes you comfortable.
Reduce your risk of a recurrence
The risk that cervical cancer will come back after treatment is very low, says Dr. Einstein. But since doctors cannot predict who will have a recurrence, it's important to do all you can to keep cancer at bay.
Get regular follow-up care. You will need regular Pap tests after treatment, according to the ACS. This is true even if you have had a hysterectomy. Your healthcare provider will tell you how often you'll need Pap tests. You may also need regular blood tests and imaging studies, such as x-rays.
"It's also very important for women to go through screening for other cancers," Dr. Einstein says. Discuss with your doctor when you should begin screening tests such as mammograms and colonoscopies.
Change your lifestyle. Eating right, maintaining a healthy weight and avoiding tobacco smoke are three things you can do to reduce your risk of a recurrence. A healthy lifestyle may also help improve your emotional health and ease side effects such as fatigue.
Give it time
Remember, recovery after cancer treatment takes time. To get through this period of healing and change, lean on your family and friends for support, and talk to your doctor for advice on helping your body heal.