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Vaginal Dryness During Chemotherapy

Chemotherapy is a life-saving treatment for many cancer patients, and it is profoundly consequential to the body and mind.  Chemo comes with a series of unpleasant side effects, and for those who have vaginas, dryness is one that can impact sexual health and well-being. Let’s explore some of the causes and effects of vaginal dryness during chemotherapy, as well as potential solutions to alleviate the discomfort. 

Vaginal Dryness and Chemotherapy

Vaginal dryness is a common side effect experienced by many women undergoing chemotherapy. This is primarily due to hormonal imbalances caused by the treatment. Chemotherapy drugs can damage the ovaries, leading to a decrease in the production of the hormone estrogen. Estrogen plays a critical role in maintaining the elasticity and natural lubrication of the vagina, and when its levels drop, women may experience dryness, itching, and discomfort.

Impact on Sexual Health

Vaginal dryness can have a significant impact on sexual health and overall quality of life. The discomfort caused by dryness can make sexual intercourse painful, leading to a decrease in sexual desire and intimacy. This can further strain relationships, and affect the emotional well-being of both partners.

Additionally, the psychological toll of dealing with cancer and undergoing chemotherapy can exacerbate sexual health issues. Stress, anxiety, and depression can contribute to a decrease in sexual desire and an increase in the severity of vaginal dryness symptoms.

Addressing Vaginal Dryness

Vaginal Dryness is no fun, and it can be painful. Fortunately, there are several ways to manage vaginal dryness during chemotherapy. As with any suggestions pertaining to health, please approach the following as suggestions and check with a provider or educator if you have questions.  

Over-the-counter lubricants

Water-based or silicone-based lubricants can provide temporary relief from vaginal dryness and make touch and penetration more comfortable. A note: if you use silicone toys and tools, like pelvic floor wands, dildos, etc..  be sure to use water based lube with them, as silicone will degrade.  If you’re using your hands, your partner, metal, etc…   silicone will do.

Vaginal moisturizers 

These products can be used regularly to help maintain moisture in the vaginal tissue, alleviating dryness and discomfort.  Here’s an article from the National Institutes of Health, discussing vaginal moisturizers.

Hydration 

Staying well-hydrated is essential for overall health, and it can also help with vaginal dryness. Drinking plenty of water throughout the day ensures that your body has adequate hydration to support the natural lubrication of your vaginal tissues. Hydration during chemotherapy is also important. I can recall with clarity the difference in my experience of aches and pains when I was better hydrated.

Natural Oils 

Some individuals find relief from vaginal dryness by using natural oils such as coconut oil, olive oil, or vitamin E oil. These oils can act as a lubricant and moisturizer, providing temporary relief from dryness and discomfort. Always make sure to patch test a small area before applying to sensitive tissues to ensure you don't experience an allergic reaction.

One Patient’s Experience with Vaginal Dryness during Chemotherapy

Katherine, the author of this article, experienced dryness during chemotherapy, and her sexual response cycle was disrupted as well.  The following is a livestream from that time, and in the stream Katherine shares some lubes, a clitoral stimulation device that is FANTASTIC for orgasms, and more…

Creative Ways to Explore Intimacy When Your Partner is in Chemotherapy

Despite the challenges posed by chemotherapy, there are many ways couples can explore and maintain intimacy during this difficult time. The following strategies are meant as invitations and ideas, rather than obligations and requirements.  

1. Sensual touch 

Experiment with different types of touch to stimulate the senses and promote relaxation. This may include massage, caressing, or cuddling. Touch can help you feel closer and more connected, especially when intercourse is not possible or desirable.  A note from Katie: you might find that what ‘feels good’ is different during chemo, and that’s OK.  

2. Focus on pleasure

What are some different ways to give and receive pleasure that do not involve penetration? Foot/Hand massages might assist with neuropathy.  You can give your partner Oral sex or manual stimulation. Sex toys can provide a satisfying alternative to intercourse and help intimacy. 

3. Seek out a comfortable environment 

What your partner finds comfortable when they aren’t in chemo might be different than what they find relatively comfortable during chemo.  Some patients experience sensory processing challenges, particularly with taste and smell (nausea).  Add to this pain and fatigue, and where you might have previously sat on a bench outside to watch the sunset, you might find a cozy blanket and hot coca in a dark room is more cozy.  

4. Participate in non-sexual activities together

Strengthen your emotional connection by spending time together outside the bedroom. This may include watching media you enjoy, taking a stroll, going out for ice cream…   your Person will likely be experiencing fatigue and not feel well, so take care to attend to their needs.

5. Cultivate patience and flexibility

Recognize that your sexual relationship will likely transform during chemotherapy. Aim to be  open to adapting your intimate routine. It's essential to be patient with yourself and your partner, as it may take time to find what works best for both of you during this period. It also helps if you can find humor. 

6. Seek Assistance

Therapists and Social Workers can assist with mental health, as we all know. You might also contemplate engaging with a sex-positive coach or educator such as myself.  There are many of us who have walked the path and who are able to hold space for this conversation without shame, judgment, or embarrassment.   

What Can You Do?

Vaginal dryness and its impact on sexual health can be a distressing side effect of chemotherapy, so it helps remember that there are ways to manage the symptoms and maintain intimacy in your relationship. Open communication with your partner, seeking professional advice, and utilizing available treatments can help you navigate this challenging time.  If you would like to explore more, consider reaching out to Katherine. Her sex-positive somatics and sexuality education and coaching are there for your support.

Katherine Zitterbart

Article by Katherine Zitterbart

Katherine is a multidisciplinary – multimedia educator, facilitator, and healing

artist whose work centers Sexuality, Somatics and Sound Healing.  She works primarily with folks in the LGBTQIA+, chronic illness/pain, and Neurodivergent communities – as well as folks in helping roles.  Katie sees people in person in Pittsburgh PA, and online everywhere.

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