The experience of being diagnosed with vulvar cancer and undergoing cancer treatment may change the way you feel about your body, and will affect your life in many ways. You may experience many or relatively few side effects. Being aware of the possible treatment effects may help you anticipate them and plan ways to cope.
Regardless of the treatment prescribed, you are likely to experience fatigue, frequent medical appointments and times when you do not feel well enough to take care of tasks at home. You will need to rely on family and friends to help with some of the things you usually do. You may want to consider hiring someone for help with chores until you feel well enough to manage again. If you know that you will not have support at home, talk frankly with your health care team as early as possible so that alternatives can be explored. Since a nourishing diet is important, be sure to ask for help, if needed, in maintaining healthy meal and snack choices in your home.
Be sure that your blood count is checked to rule out anemia as a treatable cause of fatigue. There are also medications for the relief of fatigue.
You will probably need to be away from work quite a bit during the first month or two of your treatment. Talk with your supervisors at work and with your healthcare team to set up a realistic plan for work absences and return to work. Remember to tell your work supervisor that any plan must be flexible because your needs may change as treatment progresses. The Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA) offers certain protections for workers and family members who must be away from work for health reasons.
Facing the World
The effects of cancer and your cancer treatment may alter your appearance. You may appear fatigued, pale, slow-moving and you may have to face temporary hair loss. You may feel self-conscious because of these changes. It might help to imagine how you might feel if you saw a friend or sister looking as you do. Remember that many people are loving you rather than judging you as they notice these changes.
Family, Friendships and Fun
No matter what type of treatment you have, you may experience side effects that could affect how you feel about joining in social events with friends and family. Talk to your health care team if special events are coming up such as a wedding or graduation. The timing of your treatments may be able to be adjusted so that you feel as well as possible for these special days. Don’t hesitate to plan activities that you enjoy. You may have to cancel on occasion or leave a little early, but the good times will help you to find strength for the hard days.
It is often difficult for young children to understand what you are going through. Counselors are available to help you answer questions and to help your children cope. It is also a good idea to ask family and friends to help you keep your children’s normal routine.
For women who drive, driving is an almost indispensable part of adult life. You should not drive if you are taking medications that cause drowsiness, such as narcotic pain relievers and some nausea medications. Most women can start driving again within a few weeks of surgery and usually women can drive most days during chemotherapy and radiation therapy. Be sure to ask your health care team about driving.
Some treatments for ovarian cancer can cause side effects that may change the way you feel about your body or make it difficult to enjoy intimate or sexual relationships. Which side effects you experience depend on your treatment course. You may experience some or none at all. Being aware of the possible side effects may help you anticipate them and learn ways to cope with them.
Possible side effects include:
- Hair loss. A common side effect of chemotherapy, hair loss is usually temporary. Still, it can be difficult to accept. If you experience hair loss, you may choose to wear flattering wigs, scarves, or other headwear.
- Vaginal changes. Some forms of treatment, such as hysterectomy and radiation therapy, may cause dryness, shortening and narrowing of the vagina. These changes can make sexual activity uncomfortable. Using an over-the-counter vaginal lubricant may help you feel more comfortable. Your treatment team may also recommend the use of a vaginal dilator.
- Reduced sexual desire. The stress and fatigue you may experience during cancer treatment may cause you to lose interest in sex for a period of time.
Tips for Coping
Talk with your treatment team. Your treatment team members can provide advice based on your individual situation, so it is very important that you talk honestly with them. You may want to ask:
- How will my treatment affect my sexuality?
- Will these effects be temporary or permanent?
- Are there other treatment options that might lessen these effects?
- Do you have suggestions about how I can deal with the effects of treatment on my sexuality?
Communicate with your partner. Having cancer can strain both partners in a relationship. Talking about the sexual and emotional effects cancer has on your relationship can be difficult. But you may find it easier to work through the challenges if you talk through them together. Be prepared to share your own feelings and to listen to what your partner has to say.
Shift your focus to intimacy. Sexual intercourse is only one part of intimacy. You may find that touching, kissing and cuddling are equally fulfilling.
Be patient with yourself. Understand that a return to a sexual relationship may take time. Your treatment team can tell you if and how long you should wait to have sex after treatment. It may be longer before you feel emotionally ready. Give yourself the time you need.
Keep an open mind. Having an open mind and a sense of humor about ways to improve your sexuality may help you and your partner find what works best for you.
Seek support. There are many resources available to help you deal with any sexual or emotional issues you may have as result of cancer and its treatment. Specially trained counselors can help you deal with the impact of cancer on your life. Support groups are another good resource. People who are facing a situation similar to yours can come together to share their experiences and give one another advice and emotional support. To find support services in your area, talk with a member of your treatment team.
During treatment you may find that even the stairs to your bedroom are a challenge, even if you have worked hard during your adult life to keep fit. It’s discouraging, but normal, to have to reduce or interrupt your fitness routine. If you’ve had surgery, ask your doctor for specific guidelines about exercise. During chemotherapy or radiation, adjust your exercise according to how you feel.
You should avoid overexerting or dehydrating yourself. Over the weeks and months after you finish cancer treatment, you can build back toward your previous level of fitness.
As you go through cancer treatment, be patient with yourself. Understand that a return to your full and wonderful life will take time. Your treatment team can guide you through the difficulties that you will face if they know what is troubling you. Talk openly about the things that bother you. Give yourself the time you need.
Advance Medical Directives can be a helpful tool for clarifying your medical care wishes. We encourage both patients and families to complete one. Your health care team is available for guidance on this matter.
Nurture hope. It’s up to you to take charge of your reaction even as you face the unknown of cancer. Hope helps you see the positive aspects of life.
If you have inner spiritual beliefs, reach out to your religious community to give you additional support to face each day and LIVE.
Seek support. There are many resources available to help you deal with the physical, sexual, or emotional issues you may have as result of cancer and its treatment. Specially trained counselors can help you deal with the impact of cancer on your life. Support groups are another good resource. People who are facing a situation similar to yours can come together to share their experiences and give one another advice and emotional support.
To find support services in your area, talk with a member of your treatment team, or contact the resources listed below. Remember you are surrounded by a devoted health care team, so let us be at your side.
The Foundation for Women’s Cancer also provides a list of support groups by state [hyperlink to resources/gynecologic cancer support groups].
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