Chemo and Vaginal Dryness: The Harsh Truth
Most women expect hair loss, nausea, and unrelenting exhaustion when they go through chemotherapy. What many do not expect is another sneaky side effect: vaginal dryness. Doctors may warn about generalized dryness, but their female patients often do not connect the dots until they feel discomfort during sex.
Fortunately, the association between chemo and intimate dryness does not have to become the new normal. Women can rely on natural solutions to supplement moisture levels during (and after) treatment.
Can chemo drugs damage your ovaries?
Unfortunately, yes. Sometimes that damage is so severe it causes the ovaries to stop producing two primary female hormones: estrogen and progesterone. Not every woman experiences the same level of harm to their reproductive organs from chemo. Some can end up with irregular periods for several months, while others may find themselves in full-blown premature menopause. Studies have shown that up to 40 percent of women under the age of 40 going through chemo can go into permanent menopause from the treatment. Those figures increase with age, with chemo triggering early onset menopause in 70 to 90 percent of women over the age of 40.
In addition to interrupting normal hormone production, some chemotherapy drugs also decrease blood flow to your vaginal tissue. When healthy tissue doesn’t receive adequate blood flow, dryness can be an unfortunate side effect.
How early menopause causes vaginal dryness
Whether it happens naturally or is caused by medical interventions like chemotherapy, it’s still menopause. So, what does that mean, exactly? Well, vaginal dryness, for starters. Any woman who has ever gone through menopause can attest to this unpleasant fact. Women experiencing natural menopause gradually go through a shift in their hormone production. While they may have symptoms like hot flashes and vaginal dryness, they are less severe than for women who are tossed into menopause abruptly by chemo.
Vaginal dryness can sneak up on female chemo patients. They may start out feeling just a little less wet than usual during sex. Before they know it, their vaginal tissue becomes thinner, less elastic, and more fragile. Women can get to the point of feeling almost constant irritation, even when they aren’t intimate. The slightest friction from something as ordinary as wearing pantyhose or jeans can lead to inflammation. Sometimes that swelling can turn into a painful infection.
How doctors relieve the discomfort
Doctors can prescribe hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for women going through menopause to help alleviate symptoms. HRT uses estrogen and progesterone supplementation to replace the female body’s natural loss of these hormones. Using HRT for women who have undergone chemotherapy can be risky. Studies have revealed a link between combination hormone therapy and breast cancer.
Some women undergoing chemotherapy don’t want to take the chance of increasing their odds of getting breast cancer, especially if they already are being treated for breast cancer. They instead turn to more naturopathic options. Phytoestrogens – an estrogen-like substance that naturally occurs in some plants – are among the most popular natural solutions.
Our bodies respond to phytoestrogens the same way they do to naturally produced estrogen. Among the foods that contain phytoestrogens are apples, beans, cabbage, grapes, spinach, soybeans, and yams. Women who eat diets rich in these foods can lessen the symptoms that accompany the rapid hormonal shifts chemo tends to trigger.
Misconceptions about phytoestrogen-containing foods and their increased risk for causing cancer have scared some women away from trying them. A 2020 review of studies found the exact opposite – phytoestrogens may produce a protective effect for three types of cancer: breast, colorectal, and endometrial.
5 Natural Remedies for Chemo-Induced Vaginal Dryness
Women undergoing chemotherapy may not want to invite any additional risk factors into their lives by using HRT or consuming foods rich in phytoestrogens like soy. That doesn’t mean they have to live with the discomfort of vaginal dryness. Here are five more natural solutions that can help ease the pain without causing additional complications.
The adult human body is 60 percent water. Our cells, muscles, and organs need adequate moisture to function optimally. Drinking enough water each day can help keep all our tissues moist (even the ones below the belt). Women should aim to drink between four and six cups of water each day to stay healthy. Some women may find they need more hydration, especially those going through chemo. Pairing water with beverages rich in electrolytes like Gatorade can help direct water to the areas of your body that need it the most.
Moisturize, Moisturize, Moisturize
Any woman suffering from chronic vaginal dryness should consider the benefits of a safe vaginal moisturizer like Crème de la Femme. Not to be confused with a lubricant, vaginal moisturizers soothe and protect intimate tissue to keep it healthy and pain-free. Women who have undergone chemotherapy (or who currently are in treatment) can combat dryness and avoid inflammation with a vaginal moisturizer.
Apply a Vaginal Lubricant
For vaginal dryness that is not yet severe enough to warrant a vaginal moisturizer, you can use a vaginal lubricant to make intimacy more comfortable. Avoid lubricants with glycerin. Although they may feel silky-smooth, glycerin can provoke a yeast infection. You can substitute Crème de la Femme for an over-the-counter vaginal lubricant. It’s 100 percent hormone-free, paraben-free, and fragrance-free, making it ideal for women with a history of gynecological cancer. Each tube comes with an applicator for internal use.
Drop the Douche Bottle
For generations, women were taught that douching was necessary to “cleanse” their vaginas. The harsh truth is, douching disrupts the vagina’s normal chemical balance, leading to dryness and irritation. It can also cause yeast infections. Your body can naturally cleanse your vagina without the assistance of douches or other harsh chemical treatments. If you notice an unpleasant odor, it could be signally an infection best left to diagnosis and treatment from your doctor.
Gobble Up Good Fat
Your body needs a little bit of healthy fat with every meal to aid in digestion and make adequate levels of sex hormones. Foods naturally rich in healthy fat include avocados, dark chocolate, eggs, fatty fish, flaxseed, nuts, olives, and yogurt.
Living with vaginal dryness
Living with vaginal dryness should never be the tradeoff for receiving chemotherapy treatment. Just because it’s an expected side effect doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice sexual activity for the rest of your life. Women have the right to safe, effective, natural solutions to combat this unpleasant side effect so they can maintain normal, pain-free intimacy with their partners.