KeepHealthCare.ORG – Breast cancer survivor gets laser therapy to regain sex life
WHEN cancer survivor Sarah Korbel went through menopause at 41, the changes to her sex life hit her the hardest. Little did she know that laser therapy would change everything.
“I was in the bath when I realised my breast looked funny.
A mammogram, ultrasound and six biopsies later, I discovered why: a 9cm lobular carcinoma.
I needed a bilateral mastectomy.
Because my tumour was responsive to oestrogen and progesterone, my specialist was concerned the risk of ovarian cancer was also lurking in the background.
‘Do what you have to,’ I said.
At that point, I had three kids, aged 10, eight and six, I was 41 and would’ve done anything to make sure I saw them grow up.
Nine months later, in February 2016, I sat with my sister while she went into labour and gave birth to her third child, knowing that the next day I’d be having my ovaries removed.
Because I was on extra medication to mop up any excess oestrogen, menopause hit me like a steam train. People say it’s supposed to feel like ‘freedom’ and some women do breeze through it, just as they breeze through pregnancy, but I suffered terrible hot flushes, night sweats, insomnia, weight gain, anxiety — even though I’d previously been the least anxious person in the world — and a dry vagina which caused painful sex.
My husband, Andrew, and I had always had a great relationship and my cancer diagnosis made us even closer. He’s been amazing and everything I’d hoped he’d be. I craved the comfort of intimacy and it sucked that the physical part of our relationship wasn’t there when the love was.
I was so unhappy about the situation, I spoke to our family doctor, Dr Sally Lyttleton, who’s also a women’s health specialist.
Because oestrogen treatments were too risky, she told me about the MonaLisa Touch machine, which she’d been considering buying for her practice. The non-surgical, light-based laser treatment can help regenerate the vaginal wall and ease symptoms of vaginal atrophy, which is a thinning, drying and inflammation of the vaginal walls due to the body having less oestrogen.
Then I found out The Royal Hospital For Women in Sydney was conducting a randomised trial with Professor Jason Abbott, a gynaecological expert at the University of New South Wales, and I was an ideal candidate for it.
In randomised trials, none of the participants know if they’re having the placebo, but I’m a registered nurse so I’m very evidence-based — by the second treatment, I felt more comfortable and by the fourth the difference was really obvious.
I’ve since had the treatment outside of the study and it felt the same.
I still needed to use lubrication for sex — the more vaginal atrophy you’ve suffered, the harder it is to escape that — but it was no longer painful and I even had orgasms, which hadn’t happened since before I was diagnosed.
It wasn’t that I just felt physically better. Psychologically, I felt more human and more like a woman at a time when, after losing my breasts and ovaries, I’d felt very androgynous. It had felt as if it was the end of that part of my life, but the struggle had been worth it and now I could cope with it all.
My girlfriends were fascinated; they knew they’d eventually face menopause and it made me realise how difficult it is for women to have the discussion about something being wrong ‘down there’.
It’s awkward broaching the GP-patient divide but I went back to Sally. “Are you still thinking about buying that machine?”
I asked. The more we talked, the more we realised we were on the same wavelength about educating women, and last August we opened The Jade Room in the Sydney suburb of Balmain, where we offer the MonaLisa Touch treatment.
I reckon about 80 per cent of the women who come to us get a good result, especially those who are just starting menopause so their vaginal atrophy isn’t yet severe.
The treatment makes the vaginal walls more plump, moist and toned, which can also help with mild cervical or rectocele prolapse and incontinence, especially if they’re prepared to work on their pelvic floor, too.
And of course it’s great for cancer patients like me — young women who’ve hit menopause 15 years before they expected to and who can’t take any oestrogen therapies.
Menopausal women are so often dismissed, told it’s an ‘end of life phase’ and there’s nothing we can do, but we can and it’s crazy not to. Men have Viagra. Why should women just hang up their coat?”
* As told to Beverley Hadgraft
KNOW YOUR OPTIONS
Experiencing vaginal dryness and painful sex? Professor Abbott shares the best solutions
These topical creams are effective but are prescription only. They’re not suitable for those who are susceptible to or have experienced oestrogenreceptive cancers.
MOISTURISERS AND LUBRICANTS
Moisturisers reduce the risk of infection from dryness.
Lubricants are useful during intercourse to limit pain and reduce the risk of damage to muscles or nerves.
LASER AND OTHER THERAPIES
The 10-minute MonaLisa Touch treatment delivers a precise beam of heat to the vaginal wall to stimulate regeneration of the tissue.
There are also non-laser light therapies, and thermal and electro-magnetic treatments, but they’re not as proven as laser therapy.