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Living with cervical cancer

6-minute read

How cervical cancer affects your daily life will depend very much on what stage your disease is at. It will also depend on the treatment you're having and as a result you may require a lot of patience.

Recovering from treatment

If you have had a hysterectomy it may take 6 to 12 weeks to recover from it. During this time you need to avoid lifting (for example, children, heavy shopping bags) and heavy housework. You won't be able to drive from 3 to 8 weeks after the operation. Most women will need 8 to 12 weeks off work after a radical hysterectomy.

If you have not had a hysterectomy, are having chemotherapy or radiotherapy and you are premenopausal, you should use contraception (birth control) to avoid getting pregnant during treatment, because these treatments can harm the unborn baby. Although chemotherapy and radiotherapy reduce fertility, it is still possible for some women to become pregnant while having treatment. Should you become pregnant, talk to your doctor urgently. Your doctor may suggest you wait 2 years after chemotherapy before becoming pregnant.

Managing side effects

Fatigue

Some of the treatments for cervical cancer, particularly chemotherapy and radiotherapy, can make you very tired. You may need to take a break from some of your normal activities for a while. Don't be afraid to ask for practical help from family and friends if you need it.

Practical help may be available from your local authority. Ask your doctor or nurse about who to contact.

Menopause

If your ovaries are surgically removed or damaged during treatment with radiotherapy, it will trigger an early menopause (if you haven't already had it). Most women experience the menopause in their early fifties. Menopause leads to the following symptoms:

These symptoms can be relieved by taking a number of medications that stimulate the production of oestrogen and progesterone. This treatment is known as 'hormone replacement therapy' (HRT).

Narrowing of the vagina

Radiotherapy to treat cervical cancer can often cause your vagina to become narrower. This can make having sex painful or difficult. A narrowed vagina can be treated with a hormone cream or a dilator that you insert into your vagina to gradually make it more supple.

Lymphoedema

If the lymph nodes in your pelvis are removed, it can sometimes disrupt the normal workings of your lymphatic system. This in turn can lead to certain body parts becoming swollen, usually the arms and legs. This is known as 'lymphoedema'. There are a number of exercises and massage techniques that can reduce the swelling. Wearing specially designed bandages and compression garments can also help.

Bladder or bowel problems

Surgery and radiation therapy can affect your bladder and bowel. You may need to pass urine more often or leak a little urine when you cough or sneeze. You may have constipation, diarrhoea or wind.

For ways to manage involuntary or accidental loss of urine (urinary incontinence), contact the continence nurse or physiotherapist at your hospital. You can also contact the Continence Foundation of Australia on 1800 33 00 66.

Fertility problems

Treatment for cancer of the cervix may prevent you from being able to bear children. If fertility is an important issue for you, talk to your doctor before treatment about ways to preserve it. New ways of dealing with infertility are being developed.

Finances

If you have cervical cancer, you may be worried about your finances. You may need to think about the cost of treatments, travel, accommodation, work and childcare.

The cost will depend upon whether you are treated in the public or private system; are working and have to take time off; live in a rural area and need to travel for treatment; and have private health insurance.

If you are struggling financially, talk to your doctor or a social worker. They can give you information about what financial and practical support services are available. The Cancer Council offer a legal, financial, small business and workplace referral service that can help. Call 13 11 20.

Having cervical cancer doesn't necessarily mean you'll have to give up work. But you may need quite a lot of time off, and you may not be able to carry on completely as before during your treatment. It is against the law for your employer to discriminate against you because of your illness.

Looking after yourself

The emotional impact of living with cervical cancer can be significant. It’s important to look after yourself. That means eating healthy food, staying active and looking after yourself emotionally.

Sometimes talking to family and friends isn't enough. You may want to talk to other people, such as:

  • nurses - support and assist you through all stages of your treatment
  • social worker, physiotherapist and occupational therapist - link you to support services and help you to resume normal activities
  • psychologist or psychiatrist - talk with you and your family about your worries. They can help you figure out what upsets you and teach you ways to cope with these feelings. Psychiatrists can prescribe medications as an option if you are depressed or anxious
  • support group - offers support and information to people with cancer
  • pastoral care worker - helps you explore spiritual concerns
  • tele-counselling - support group meetings that take place by telephone

This type of emotional disruption can sometimes trigger depression. Signs that you may be depressed include:

  • feeling down or hopeless during the past month
  • no longer taking pleasure in the things that you enjoy

Contact your doctor for advice if you think that you may be depressed.

There are a range of effective treatments for depression, including antidepressant medication and psychotherapies, such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT).

Depending on where you live, you might be able to go to a Look Good Feel Better workshop. These are free of charge and provide tips and advice about dealing with changes to the way you look caused by cancer treatment. Workshops are available in capital cities and other major centres.

Where to find support

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: February 2020


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