A common, but manageable side effect of cervical cancer treatment is the loss of strength and flexibility of the pelvic floor.
The pelvic floor refers to the muscles and connective tissue that span the area under the pelvis. In women, the pelvic floor muscles support the bladder, intestines and uterus. Like other muscles in the body, these muscles need to be strong and flexible in order to work correctly.
Strong muscles and tissues in the pelvic floor are important to for sexual activity, maintaining urinary and anal continence and providing support for the abdomen and lower back.
Women who have undergone radiation therapy in the pelvic region may have difficulty with strength and flexibility of their pelvic floor muscles and surrounding tissues. Your vaginal wall, hips and upper thighs may lose normal motion due to radiation fibrosis. Gentle exercises including Kegel exercises and dilators can help them regain mobility and strength in these tissues.
Kegel exercises build strength in the pelvic floor muscles. Strong pelvic floor muscles help maintain urinary continence. Some women describe this exercise as if they were stopping a stream of urine.
In order to perform a correct pelvic floor exercise, you should:
- Place one hand on top of your pubic bone.
- Tighten, and draw in the muscles around the anal and the vaginal openings so that you feel the muscles lift towards your pubic bone and squeeze the openings shut.
- Start lying down with your knees bent and supported with pillows.
There are two types of exercise contractions:
- Quick contractions that tighten, lift and release.
- Endurance contractions that tighten, lift and hold the muscles for up to 10 seconds.
Kegel exercises can be performed sitting or standing.
Treatment for cervical cancer can also cause the vagina and vaginal opening to shrink. This can make it difficult for a doctor to perform internal exams, and can also make sexual intercourse difficult and uncomfortable.
A vaginal dilator stretches the scar tissue that has formed in the vagina. It can take up to eight to 12 weeks to feel an increase in the size of the vaginal opening and a softening of the tissues.
Because the process takes several weeks, patience is important. For most women, there is a period of adjustment, and then using the dilator will become more routine.
Building strength of your pelvic floor will make you feel better all over. Strength and flexibility of these muscles can help you feel more in control and more like yourself.
Some women find it difficult to do Kegel exercises or use their dilator, especially when they first start. If you are having difficulty a physical therapist who specializes in treating the pelvic region can help. Good Shepherd Penn Partners has pelvic floor specialists. If interested in making an appointment call 1-877-9-MY-REHAB.