It may take some time to recover from treatment for cervical cancer. As well as causing physical changes, you may find that cancer affects you emotionally.
Side effects of treatment vary from person to person. Some women don’t experience any side effects; others may experience a few. Side effects may last from a few weeks to a few months or, in some cases, many years or permanently. Fortunately, there are ways to reduce or manage the discomfort that side effects cause.
Feeling tired is not only a side effect of the treatment itself. Travelling to hospitals and clinics for treatment can be exhausting. If you work during your treatment or if you have a family to care for, this can make you feel especially tired.
It may be frustrating if other people don’t understand how you’re feeling. Find out more about our support services.
After surgery or radiotherapy, some women notice changes in their bowel habits. You may experience constipation or diarrhoea, or feel pain in your abdomen.
The following tips may help you to manage these side effects:
Bladder control may change after surgery or radiotherapy. Somewomen find they need to pass urine more often or in a hurry. Others may experience involuntary loss of urine when they cough, sneeze, laugh, strain or lift. This is called urinary incontinence. There are ways to manage and treat urinary incontinence. Ask your doctor to refer you to a continence nurse or physiotherapist at your hospital. You can also call the National Continence Helpline on 1800 33 00 66 or visit continence.org.au.
The blood vessels in the bowel and bladder can become more fragile after radiotherapy. This can cause blood to appear in urine or stools, even months or years after treatment. Let your doctor know if this occurs so you can be given the appropriate treatment.
If lymph nodes have been damaged or removed during surgery, lymph fluid may not drain properly from your legs. This causes the fluid to build up and the legs to swell, which is called lymphoedema. This can occur during treatment or after treatment has finished.
It is important to manage lymphoedema symptoms as soon as possible. Gentle exercise, compression stockings, and a type of massage called manual lymphatic drainage can all help to reduce the swelling. A physiotherapist trained in lymphoedema management will be able to give you further advice.
To find a practitioner who specialises in the management of lymphoedema, visit the Australasian Lymphology Association website. Cancer Australia's booklet Lymphoedema - what you need to know is also a good source of information.
If you’ve had radiotherapy to your ovaries or surgery to remove them, your body will no longer produce the hormones oestrogen and progesterone. When these hormones are no longer made by the body, women stop menstruating (having periods). This is called menopause. For most women, menopause is a natural and gradual process that starts between the ages of 45 and 55.
Symptoms of menopause include:
The symptoms of sudden menopause are usually more severe than a natural menopause, because the body hasn’t had time to get used to a gradual decrease in the levels of oestrogen and progesterone.
For information about dealing with the symptoms of menopause, talk to your doctor or call Cancer Council 13 11 20.
Menopause may cause other changes in the body. For example, over time, your bones may become weak and brittle, and break more easily. This is called osteoporosis. Your cholesterol levels may rise, which can increase your risk of heart disease. The table below outlines ways to help prevent osteoporosis and heart disease. For more information, talk to your doctor, or visit osteoporosis.org.au and heartfoundation.org.au.
Having cervical cancer can affect your sexuality in different ways. The effects you experience depend on many factors, such as your treatment and its side effects, whether you have a partner, and your overall self-confidence.
Knowing the potential challenges and addressing them early may help you to adjust to these changes. Sexual intercourse may not always be possible, but closeness and communication are vital to a healthy relationship. Talking to a counsellor may help.
The main side effect of treatment will be to the vagina. If the ovaries have been affected by surgery or radiotherapy, they will no longer produce oestrogen. This will cause dryness in your vagina, and it may not expand easily during sexual intercourse.
Radiotherapy can also cause the vagina to narrow or shorten (vaginal stenosis). Although vaginal stenosis can make sexual intercourse uncomfortable, it should not affect your ability to reach orgasm. See below for ways to keep your vagina open and more elastic.
A lack of interest in sex or loss of desire is common because of the physical and emotional effects of treatment.
If you do not feel like having sexual intercourse, or if you find it uncomfortable, let your partner know. It normally takes some time for sex to be comfortable again. You can also explore other ways to be intimate, such as massage and cuddling.
Because cervical cancer affects the reproductive organs, some treatments, such as hysterectomy and radiotherapy, will cause infertility. This means it is no longer possible to become pregnant.
Many women experience a sense of loss when they learn that their reproductive organs will be removed or will no longer function. You may feel devastated if you are no longer able to have children, and may worry about the impact of this on your relationship or future relationships. Even if your family is complete or you were not planning to have children, you may feel some distress.
If you have a partner, talk to them about your feelings. Speaking to a counsellor or gynaecological oncology nurse may also help.
For some women, there may be options for having children after treatment. Before treatment starts, ask your doctor or a fertility specialist about what options are available to you. The following list explains some ways you may be able to have children after treatment for cervical cancer.
You can find more information in Cancer Council’s booklet Fertility and Cancer. Call 13 11 20 for a free copy.