Sarah, 44 had vaginal lasering after having her ovaries removed and suffering early menopause and vaginal atrophy.
About 15 years ago, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer. Concerned it could be a genetic predisposition, we decided to be tested for the BRCA gene. Mum and my sister were positive. I was negative.
I went on to have three children and then about three years ago, I was having a bath and my eldest daughter asked if she could read to me. “Sure,” I said and suddenly she looked up from her book and frowned. “Mummy, your nipple looks a bit funny,” she said.
“It’s probably because I’m cold,” I told her but when I looked down I realised: ‘Actually it does look funny.’
I feared the worst immediately and a mammogram, ultrasound and six biopsies confirmed it. I had a 9 centimetre, lobular, Grade 2 carcinoma. Lobular cancer doesn’t feel like a lump, it spreads, so it often isn’t picked up. In retrospect, I realised my breast probably had felt heavier and a bit bigger but then whose breasts don’t feel different at various times in the month?
I needed a bilateral mastectomy and radiotherapy and afterwards, because my tumour was so highly oestrogen and progesterone positive and because of my background, my surgeon felt the risk of ovarian cancer was lurking in the background.
She recommended I also have my ovaries and fallopian tubes removed.
My children were ten, eight and six: “I just want to be around,” I told her. “Do what needs to be done.”
The surgery went ahead. Afterwards I also needed to go on endocrine therapy, an aromatase inhibitor to block any oestrogen. It meant I hit menopause like a steam train. It was crazy.
I was 41 and suffering hot flushes which everyone talks about, but also vaginal atrophy which they don’t.
At a time when love and the closeness of intimacy had never felt so important to me, the pain of sex really threatened to affect my relationship with my husband.
However, I kept on giving it a go it and never let on how painful entry was or the abrasive feeling I was enduring because he’s a good and lovely guy. He wouldn’t have wanted to cause me any more distress so he’d have pulled away.
Looking back I think it’s crazy what women will put themselves through.
Eventually sex became so unbearable, I went to see my GP. She’s a lovely, family doctor with a keen interest in women’s health. She’d seen me through all my life’s roller coasters from the birth of my children to this. “Sex is getting more and more painful,” I despaired and she told me about the MonaLisa Touch, a vaginal lasering treatment.
I am a nurse so straight away did some research. To my delight there was plenty of good evidence that vaginal lasering had enjoyed great results on menopausal women so I went ahead and had four treatments.
I was amazed at the results. I can’t tell you what a huge huge difference it made.
I still needed to use lubrication, the more atrophied your vaginal walls have become, the harder it is to escape that, but within a month, the tissues had become thicker, plumper and more moist which meant sex was pain free and I was genuinely enjoying myself again. I even resumed having orgasms and that was something I hadn’t experienced since before I was diagnosed.
Even more important, I felt like a woman again at a time when I hadn’t felt like a woman at all. Having my breasts and ovaries removed had made me feel androgynous. Maintaining a sexual relationship made me feel less androgynous and that was important for my self-esteem.
Another unexpected bonus was that it felt as if it marked the end of that particular story in my life. I’d finished all my surgery and, while I’ll be on medication for the next 10 to 20 years, I’m back in control. It’s one less reminder of the cancer and what’s going on in my body. All I need to continue feeling this way is a top-up laser treatment every ten months.
Without the laser treatment, my option was a compounded low oestrogen topical vaginal cream but you have to use that every day and it’s messy. Also, although everyone kept saying current research indicated its use should be fine for me I thought: ‘Why take the risk?’
I’ve told other older women about this treatment and they’ve been amazed. One told me how she gathered up all her courage to tell her doctor how she was struggling with painful sex and all he did was shrug and say: “It’s menopause. It’s an end of life phase.” She felt diminished, as if she was hurtling along the track to death and it was something she couldn’t do anything about.
Well we can do something about it and it’s crazy not to.
There’s a study being conducted at the Royal Women’s Hospital and I hope it results in this treatment being more accessible and even eligible for rebate. Men have Viagra – that’s a $72 billion industry and it’s now cheaper than a cup of coffee. Why shouldn’t older women feel sexy as well?
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