In the last column, we discussed the issues of vaginal dryness and the troublesome symptoms that many women experience as a result of this medical condition. Vaginal burning, itchiness, and pain can impact a woman’s sex life and overall sexual self-esteem, or how she views herself as a sexual being. We mentioned the importance of vaginal moisturizers and lubricants, and in today’s column, we will give the readers some specific suggestions.
For many women, going out in public and buying sexual products may be a scary thought. Many stores, including your local pharmacy, may have sexual lubricants or moisturizers in the personal hygiene section, but for many women, it can feel embarrassing to buy these products. It might be an uncomfortable experience, but at the same time, all women are entitled to sexual health and wellness. If you’re anxious about buying these products, try shopping at off hours, or bring your partner or a girlfriend with you. There’s nothing to be embarrassed about, and feeling good about your sexual health is an important part of the human experience.
Many women living with cancer are unaware that there are resources online, such as www.MiddlesexMD.com, which provides a safe place where women can buy sexual accessories and have them delivered directly to their homes in discreet nonsexual packaging. I serve on the medical advisory team for this website along with other specialists in the field. And there are other ways to buy these products privately. Some oncology providers sell sexual products and other merchandise in their offices. Others have confidential websites.
Vaginal moisturizers are designed to hydrate the vagina and keep it moist. Vaginal lubricants are liquids, gels, or suppositories that can be used in and around the vagina to ease dryness and pain during sex. In this column, we’ll be talking about non-hormonal options, since products containing hormones may not always be recommended for someone who’s been diagnosed with breast cancer.
It’s important for anyone diagnosed with breast cancer to read product labels when it comes to a substance that will go inside the vagina. Many women prefer organic or water-based lubricants for sex. Some additives or added ingredients such as warming liquids, flavors, and colors can be irritating to the vaginal lining. Some women may find that spermicides or bactericides, which may be on some types of condoms, can also be irritating to the sensitive vaginal lining.
Vaginal moisturizers are used independently of intercourse and help hydrate the vaginal lining and restore the ridges, folds, and elasticity. They are used on a regular basis, independent of sexual activity. Replens and RepHresh are typical moisturizers that can help restore and revive the vaginal lining and improve lubrication while adjusting pH. Some other popular moisturizers include K-Y Long Lasting Vaginal Moisturizer and Emerita Feminine Personal Moisturizer.
Vaginal lubricants are used to help ease pain and dryness during intercourse. Some lubricants contain glycerin. While glycerin is not harmful to the human body, some people are sensitive to glycerin and react to it. There are new lubricant products available on the market that offer glycerin-free options.
Some lubricants also contain parabens. While parabens can mimic weak estrogens, they have no known link to cancer. Parabens may be irritating to the vagina, so some women may choose to avoid them.
Some reported patient favorites include Wet Light Water Based Moisturizing Lubricant Gel, Yes Water-Based Organic Lubricant and Moisturizer, Good Clean Love, Glycerin & Paraben Free Astroglide Personal Lubricant & Moisturizer, and K-Y Sensual Silk Liquid.
Water-based lubricants often contain purified water, and may also contain glycerin and propylene glycol. They typically do not stain sheets or clothing and are safe to use with latex condoms. They must be reapplied, as they can dry out with extended activity.
Silicone-based lubricants (Wet Platinum, Replens Silky Smooth) may last longer than water based products, will not soak into the skin, are slippery, and need little reapplication. They are tasteless, odorless, and have no stickiness or tackiness. They can also be used as massage lotions.
We’ve been encouraging you to post your questions to us either in the comments area below, on the Breastcancer.org Facebook page, or by sending them to firstname.lastname@example.org. Here’s a product question many women ask me, and it comes from one of our audience members:
Q: “…I have been experiencing dryness even at an early stage of cancer… Is petroleum jelly harmful?”
A: While petroleum jelly is not toxic to use on your body, it should be avoided in the vagina because it can upset the natural balance of good and bad bacteria, and it may cause vaginal infections in some women.
It may be trial and error to decide which lubricant you and your partner prefer, so you may consider small samples or small starter bottles until you discover what you and your partner prefer and what works best for symptom relief.
Vaginal moisturizers and lubricants are one of the mainstays for moving beyond the sexual side effects of breast cancer treatment. How much and how often you’ll need them varies between individuals. Some women do well with using these one time a week, while others need to use them more than two to three times weekly. Don’t be afraid to experiment with different products. Find what’s right for you and your body.
In some cases, non-hormonal products still aren’t helping the issues with severe pain and dryness, and you and your healthcare professional may begin the discussion on using hormones including local estrogen therapy. We’ll talk about those in-depth in a future column, because they can be controversial in women at high risk for or who’ve been diagnosed with breast cancer.
Vaginal dryness often goes hand-in-hand with vaginal pain during sex. This can be due to tissues that have become tighter and less elastic. So we’ll keep the dialogue on this very important topic open next month, when I’ll talk about how vaginal dilators — plastic or silicone vaginal insets designed to help lengthen and widen the vagina and its opening.
This may be the first time some of you are hearing about vaginal dilators, so we’d love to hear any questions you might have. Or, if your healthcare provider has prescribed them for you, let us know if they helped you.