Simms Mann virtual workshop to focus on women’s sexual health, body image after cancer

‘You’re not broken because you went through changes.’
Cancer diagnosis and treatment can often leave survivors feeling like strangers in their own bodies, says Madeline Elia, LCSW, a counselor with the Simms/Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology.
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Cancer diagnosis and treatment can often leave survivors feeling like strangers in their own bodies. Physical and emotional scars of the experience can affect a person’s confidence, sexuality and even identity, says Aubrey Farabee, MSW, a counselor with the Simms Mann-UCLA Center for Integrative Oncology.

Farabee and UCLA Health colleagues Rachel Frankenthal, PA-C, MPH, a certified gynecologic oncology physician assistant, and Emily Whalen, DPT, who specializes in pelvic floor physical therapy, will discuss “Cancer, Sexual Health and Body Image” at a live virtual workshop presented by the Simms Mann Center on Feb. 15.

The 90-minute workshop provides a safe space to discuss things that aren’t easy to talk about, Farabee says. It will not only address sexuality and intimacy, but how to rebuild trust in one’s body and adjust to physical changes after cancer treatment.

“It validates that it’s not vain to need to explore how to be in your body again,” she says.

Among the topics that Farabee will cover:

  • Breathing exercises to calm the nervous system
  • Practicing mindful awareness of sensual experiences, such as a shower or a massage
  • How masturbation can help establish comfort and familiarity with one’s body
  • Intimate experiences beyond sexual acts
  • Cultivating non-judgmental acceptance of one’s body

Physical changes that can affect sexual health

Frankenthal and Whalen will discuss the physical aspects of the body and sexuality after cancer treatment. 

More than half of breast and gynecologic cancer survivors report sexual challenges following treatment, Frankenthal says. Undergoing cancer treatment can be exhausting, traumatizing and painful, “which can certainly contribute to how patients view their bodies, themselves and their relationships,” she says. Treatment can also leave patients with treatment-related side effects including fatigue, neuropathy, hair loss and menopausal symptoms.

Surgical and medical treatments for gynecologic or other cancers can induce menopause, a much more abrupt onset than that of the natural lessening of estrogen with aging. Side effects of menopause can include hot flashes; mood changes; sleep problems; changes to nails, skin and hair; joint and muscle aches; fatigue; vaginal dryness; loss of libido; and trouble with orgasm.

Among the topics Frankenthal and Whalen will address:

  • Coping with the side effects of menopause, including vaginal dryness and painful intercourse
  • Vaginal stenosis and vaginal dilators
  • Pelvic floor dysfunction and pelvic floor physical therapy

The essence of the workshop is, “you’re not broken because you went through changes,” Farabee says. “You’re different and you can operate within those differences and still enjoy life and self and relationships and sex and masturbating and whatever you’re hoping to enjoy out of life.”

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