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New trial aims to improve sexual wellbeing in women after breast cancer

July 15th, 2016

A little talked about side effect of breast cancer treatment can leave women experiencing pain during sex which affects their ability to be intimate with their partners.

After being diagnosed and enduring chemotherapy, surgery and radiation, some women with a particular type of tumour must also take ongoing treatment for at least five years to ensure the cancer doesn’t come back.

This treatment, called aromatase inhibitor therapy, can cause vaginal dryness, irritation, painful sex and urinary tract problems. These unpleasant side effects mean that many women stop taking the treatment, putting themselves at risk of their cancer returning.

Aromatase inhibitors are prescribed for tumours whose growth is fuelled by the female hormone estrogen. They work by blocking the production of estrogen throughout a woman’s body, depriving any remaining breast cancer cells of the fuel to grow. However, the lack of estrogen is what causes the issues in the vagina, affecting women’s quality of life.

Although some women do use a low-dose vaginal estrogen to alleviate the symptoms, it would be much better to be able to offer an effective non-estrogen alternative.

An alternative is what Professor Susan Davis and her team from Monash’s School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine are investigating, to help women enjoy sexual wellbeing while not putting themselves at risk.

Professor Davis, who is funded by the National Breast Cancer Foundation, aims to evaluate the effectiveness of a vaginal cream which could help women stay on their treatment while also enjoying sexual intimacy with their partners, and normal urinary function.

Her team is looking for women to participate in the study to determine the effect of this potential new treatment on sexual satisfaction, including whether vaginal dryness and pain are reduced during sex, as well as measuring vaginal health and urinary incontinence.

“This study has the potential to improve the wellbeing and quality of life of a large proportion of women who have had breast cancer. This extends beyond individual women to include their intimate partners.

“We hope that our findings will facilitate discussion and de-stigmatise issues associated with sexual satisfaction in women who have had breast cancer,” said Professor Davis.

“With more women being diagnosed with breast cancer and living longer, research such as Professor Davis’, which aims at improving their quality of life through treatments with fewer side-effects, is of vital importance,” said Dr Alessandra Muntoni, Director of Research Investment at the National Breast Cancer Foundation.

If you are over 18 years, are taking an aromatase inhibitor and experiencing symptoms of vaginal dryness, itch or pain with sexual activity, you are invited to participate in this study and can find more information here.