Vaginal Dryness During Cancer Treatment

How You Can Combat Vaginal Dryness During Treatment

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Women undergoing cancer treatment know that vaginal dryness can be a bothersome side effect. The result is mild to severe burning, itching, and dryness that can make sexual intercourse painful and cause normal tasks, such as walking, to become uncomfortable.

What Causes Vaginal Dryness During Treatment?

Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation therapy, and hormonal therapy can interfere with the body's production of natural vaginal lubrication.

Surgery: A radical hysterectomy to treat invasive gynecologic cancer forces a women into menopause.

The drops in estrogen production that occur as a result cause vaginal dryness to occur to varying degrees.

Women with a strong genetic risk of breast cancer may undergo a prophylactic bilateral salpingo-oophorectomy, a surgery to remove the ovaries, which also forces a woman into menopause. When this occurs, it is called forced menopause or surgical menopause.

Chemotherapy: Pre-menopausal women may have this problem simply because chemotherapy reduces all types of secretions, leading not only to vaginal dryness, but dry skin, dry mouth and even constipation. A temporary menopause, caused by the cessation of ovarian function during treatment, can also cause vaginal dryness. In those whose menstruation begins again, estrogen is restored, and vaginal dryness improves.

Radiation Therapy: Unfortunately, women who undergo radiation therapy to the pelvis have more long-term vaginal dryness issues than women undergoing other treatment methods -- even after treatment has ended.

It can be a chronic condition that may require prescription strength medication for relief.

Hormone Therapy: Women taking aromatase inhibitors to prevent tumor growth and the recurrence of breast cancer often experience vaginal dryness. These drugs work by suppressing estrogen production in the body.

Again, like with other treatment methods, low estrogen can equal vaginal dryness.

Vaginal Dryness Treatments

There are many treatments for vaginal dryness, ranging from homeopathic options to prescription medications. Before starting any medication, talk to your doctor to be sure it will not affect your treatment.

Over-the-Counter Vaginal Dryness Remedies: Mild cases of vaginal dryness can usually be remedied by using an over-the-counter product sold at your drugstore. These products are sold in cream, gel, and oil forms. You may have to try a few different kinds before finding the right one for you. There are many, and some examples include Sylk, Astroglide (for intercourse), K-Y Silk-E, Replens, Reprhesh, Lubrin, and Emerita.

If you are unsure of which to choose, ask your doctor for a recommendation. He or she may also have samples for you to try.

What Over-the-Counter Products to Avoid: You should avoid using petroleum jelly products like Vaseline as vaginal lubricants. Mineral oil (baby oil) and cooking oils are definitely not advised, as well.

Old home remedies may have recommended these household staples at one time, but today we know that they can breakdown the latex in condoms and may also alter our vaginal pH, ultimately causing infections.

Vaginal Estrogen: Vaginal estrogen is available in a cream, suppository, tablet, and vaginal ring forms. All are inserted into the vagina and must be prescribed by a physician.

Some of the more commonly prescribed vaginal estrogen medications include Vagifem, Estrace, Premarin, and Estring. Your doctor may want you try a non-hormonal medication before prescribing vaginal estrogen, especially if have estrogen receptor positive (ER+) breast cancer.

Natural Remedies: Several oils and herbs are used by women to combat vaginal dryness. Again, oil-based products can alter vaginal pH and cause infections. Not all herbal remedies are safe to use during cancer treatment, so it is best to have your doctor recommend a natural therapy if this is the route you want to go.

What To Avoid if You Have Vaginal Dryness

Many things can make irritation caused by vaginal dryness worse. You may want to avoid:
  • soaps and body washes that contain fragrance; bubble baths
  • laundry detergent that contains fragrance (wash panties and pants in fragrance-free/allergy-safe detergent)
  • feminine cleansing cloths/douches
  • tight-fitting pants
  • panties made of material other than soft cotton (sometimes lace and other fabrics can cause friction with movement)


Effects of Cancer Treatment on Male Sexuality. Treatment Topics and Resources. American Cancer Society. Accessed January 10, 2010.

Frequently Asked Questions. Treatment Topics and Resources. American Cancer Society. Accessed January 10, 2010.

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