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Caring for yourself after cervical cancer
Regular follow-up care, a healthy lifestyle and the support of loved ones can help you heal emotionally and physically.
At last—your treatment for cervical cancer is now done. You're relieved—and excited.
Still, you may feel as though you're entering unknown territory. Your body may have changed, and you may be coping with the side effects of treatment. You may worry that your cancer will come back and wonder what you can do to help prevent a recurrence.
The following advice from the American Cancer Society, the American Society of Clinical Oncology and the Foundation for Women's Cancer can help you live the full life you deserve.
1. Get regular follow-up care. Your care doesn't end when treatment does. You'll be closely watched for a possible recurrence—be sure to keep every follow-up visit and test your doctor recommends. Not missing any can also help you feel more in control as you heal.
Most doctors advise that women with cervical cancer keep getting regular HPV or Pap tests even if they've had a hysterectomy with their cervix removed. Cells for these screening tests can be taken from the upper part of the vagina.
2. Talk to your doctor about side effects. Ask your doctor which ones to watch for after your treatment concludes, when to contact your doctor and how to manage symptoms. Physical changes may include:
- Early menopause. If you've had a hysterectomy and your ovaries were removed, you'll experience premature menopause. Symptoms like hot flashes, night sweats, vaginal dryness and trouble sleeping may be particularly severe. The most effective treatment is hormone replacement therapy, though it's not a safe option for every woman. Ask your doctor about its pros and cons, as well as alternative treatments, such as applying a small of amount of estrogen locally in your vagina.
- Discomfort during sex. You may experience pain or discomfort because radiation therapy can cause a narrowing of the vagina and a hysterectomy may shorten the vaginal canal. Your doctor may advise a dilator to help stretch your vagina or local hormone therapy to ease dryness and pain. Water-soluble vaginal lubricants or moisturizers may help ease dryness.
- Lymphedema. This abnormal swelling can occur if lymph nodes are removed during surgery or lymph vessels are scarred from radiation treatment. Your feet, legs, groin, genitals and lower abdominal wall are most likely to be affected. Lymphedema usually occurs within a year or so after treatment, but it can also happen years later. Treatment, which can range from compression garments to physical therapy, works best if symptoms are caught early. So if they occur, tell your doctor right away.
3. Take good care of yourself. Do your best to:
- Get to—and stay at—a healthy weight.
- Be physically active.
- Eat well.
- Stop smoking if you light up.
It's not yet clear if healthy behaviors like these will reduce your risk of cervical cancer coming back. (That's true even though smoking raises the risk of being diagnosed with cervical cancer.)
Still, these positive behaviors can help you feel better physically and emotionally as you adjust to your new life. Plus, they can protect your overall health.
4. Reach out. Stress is a normal response to the newness of finishing treatment. If you're feeling anxious, remember this: There are many people and places you can turn to for emotional support, from friends and family to counselors, clergy and support groups for cancer survivors. Take advantage of any resources that might help you.