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Side effects of surgery for vaginal cancer

Women discussing vaginal cancer

This page is about the effects of surgery for vaginal cancer.

 

A quick guide to what's on this page

Side effects of surgery for vaginal cancer

The side effects of surgery will depend on the type of operation you have. Usually, the smaller the operation, the fewer the side effects.

Scarring

Scar tissue is less stretchy than healthy tissue. If scar tissue forms around the outside of your vagina, it may narrow the entrance. You may then find that penetrative sex can be painful. So to prevent this, your specialist nurse will show you how to stretch the vaginal opening with vaginal dilators. These are cone shaped objects that you put into your vagina to stretch it.

Difficulty having an orgasm

Women who have had their lower vagina removed may have a lower sex drive afterwards. They may also have reduced pleasure during sexual activity and problems reaching orgasm. This doesn’t always happen and it depends on the exact position and size of the cancer.

Swelling

If the lymph nodes in the groin are removed, you may develop swelling between your legs or down your thighs. This is called lymphoedema. If you notice any swelling, it is important to tell your doctor or specialist nurse straight away. Lymphoedema is easiest to control if it is treated early.

Bladder or bowel problems

Some women who have surgery for vaginal cancer have problems afterwards with their bladder or bowel. How likely this is to happen depends on the type of surgery. Let your doctor or specialist nurse know if you have any problems.

 

CR PDF Icon You can view and print the quick guides for all the pages in the treating vaginal cancer section.

 

 

Effects of surgery

The side effects of surgery will depend on the type of operation you have had. Usually, the smaller the operation, the fewer the side effects. All surgery can cause immediate side effects, such as pain. Other possible side effects are infection and blood clots. There is more general information about surgery side effects in the about cancer treatment section. You may have some of the effects mentioned on this page.

 

Vaginal narrowing

Any vaginal cancer operation can make scar tissue form. Scar tissue is more fibrous than healthy tissue. This means it is stiffer and less stretchy. If you have not had all your vagina taken away, and scar tissue forms around the outside of your vagina, it may narrow the entrance. You may then find that penetrative sex can be painful.

To prevent narrowing, your specialist nurse will teach you to stretch the vaginal opening with dilators. You start using them once the area has healed after surgery. The dilators are smooth cone shaped objects that you put into your vagina to stretch it. They come in sets of different sizes. You use them every day for a few minutes, with a lubricating gel. You begin with one of a comfortable size and use larger ones until your vagina is stretched enough for you to have sex comfortably. Some people like to involve their partner with this. Your doctor or specialist nurse can give you the dilators. If you are not able to stretch the vaginal opening, your surgeon may be able to use skin grafts to widen it.

 

Difficulty having an orgasm

Women who have had vaginal surgery that has removed their lower vagina may have a reduction in sexual desire. They may also have less pleasure during sex and problems reaching orgasm. But this doesn’t always happen. It depends on the exact position and size of the cancer. You will need to talk this over with your own surgeon, who will explain as much to you before the operation as possible. But sometimes surgeons can’t tell exactly which type of surgery you need before your operation. They also may not be able to tell you exactly how the surgery may affect your sensations during sex. 

There is information about your feelings and your sex life in the living with vaginal cancer section.

 

Leg and groin swelling

If the lymph nodes in the groin are removed, you may develop some swelling between your legs or down your thighs. This is called lymphoedema. The swelling can make your leg feel heavy and can be painful and tiring. It may affect one leg or both legs. If you notice any swelling, it is important to tell your doctor or specialist nurse about this straight away. Lymphoedema is easiest to control if it is caught early. It is important for you to see a lymphoedema specialist if you have signs of swelling. The specialist is usually a nurse or physiotherapist. The British Lymphology Society have a register of lymphoedema specialists.

Specially fitted support stockings may help. If you have too much swelling for support stockings, your specialist may suggest elastic bandages to try to reduce it. This is called compression bandaging. Some types of massage can also help, particularly manual lymphatic drainage (MLD). Some specialists use inflatable sleeves to gently squeeze fluid up towards the top of your legs so that it can drain away through the lymphatic vessels. These tiny tubes carry tissue fluid around the body and empty it back into the bloodstream.

Lymphoedema can come on years after your treatment. To help prevent it, you should try to avoid getting any infection in your leg. Having an infection leads to local swelling. This can start lymphoedema off if you have had surgery or radiotherapy to your lymph nodes. It is a good idea to

  • Try to protect your legs and feet from sharp objects – always wear shoes, and wear long trousers for gardening
  • Wear insect repellent so that you won't get bitten
  • Take care of all cuts, scratches or bites straight away, by cleaning them with antiseptic and covering with a dressing
  • Avoid sunburn
  • Take extra care when cutting your toenails – you should not cut or tear the cuticles
  • Use an electric razor carefully if you shave your legs

We have detailed information about lymphoedema in our coping with cancer section.

 

Bowel or bladder problems

Some women who have surgery for vaginal cancer have problems afterwards with their bladder or bowel. How likely this is to happen depends on the type of surgery. The effects on the bladder or bowel can vary from person to person. So you will need to check with your doctors exactly what they are going to do and whether it could affect how your bowel or bladder work. Let your doctor or specialist nurse know if you do have any problems.

Advanced vaginal cancer can sometimes spread to the wall between the vagina and the back passage (rectum) or into the tube that runs from the bladder (the urethra). In this case, you would need a very large operation, involving rectal or bladder surgery. These operations are called pelvic exenteration. They are more often done for locally advanced cervical cancer. So, you can find detailed information about them in the cervical cancer section

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Updated: 23 September 2015