In this blog, researcher and nurse Tracie Miles, author of a Cochrane Review on vaginal dilator therapy after pelvic radiotherapy, writes about sex, science and what happens when we listen to women.
Page last reviewed 30 January 2023
So there I am, a newbie gynaecology cancer nurse, looking after women during and after radiotherapy Something done with the aim of improving health or relieving suffering. For example, medicines, surgery, psychological and physical therapies, diet and exercise changes. for their pelvic cancer. My boss shows me the hospital’s vaginal dilators; hollow phallus-shaped plastic tubes in various sizes, stacking one inside each other like a set of Russian dolls.
The thing is, I’m supposed to tell the woman in front of me that she needs to push these tubes into her vagina. Over the last few months, she has had hands, eyes and instruments in it as she is trying to cure or palliate her painful tender and occasionally bleeding cancer. I’m supposed to tell her to insert these THINGS into her vagina, around 3 times a week and move it around to stretch the tender skin. My boss says that if she doesn’t the walls of the vagina might get stuck together, might lose their elasticity as well as moisture/lubrication… making penetrative sexual intercourse and medical examination difficult (known as vaginal stenosis)… oh and not to worry if she bleeds whilst she is doing this… that’s normal… hmm tricky that; vaginal bleeding was the signal she had that took her to the doctor, who then put a speculum in her vagina and referred to the cancer team.
Anyway, I obediently complied with issuing instructions; my patients doing the same dutifully trying to be concordant with my commands.
I started to listen to the silence
Then I started to listen to the silence during treatment consults….. it was loud, DILATING IS DIFFICULT! She was telling me that she wasn’t sexually active, and didn’t want to be… She whispered that the dilator made her feel dirty and reminded her of the sexual abuse she had endured and was distasteful. We women are not all the same… so not silence, but a SHOUT… really? I want my vagina back… that dilator is so medical… can’t I just have sex or use my vibrator?
I needed to give them an answer so turned to the library to find my voice. There were many medical papers on the topic repeating the advice of senior teachers but no good research studies and no definitive clear message. The obvious next step was to apply science. I used In systematic reviews we search for and summarize studies that answer a specific research question (e.g. is paracetamol effective and safe for treating back pain?). The studies are identified, assessed, and summarized by using a systematic and predefined approach. They inform recommendations for healthcare and research. methodology. That done[i], the science shouted “No robust evidence, more research needed in this area”.
Might vibrators be a preferred alternative?
The next step was to measure the vaginal damage caused by radiotherapy. There were no practical measuring tools so one needed to be designed, built and tested. We called it the vaginometer, it can physically measure what women are telling us. We could measure if the vagina was shorter, less elastic… This became the beginning of my doctoral thesis looking at dilator therapy. The research question turned into asking if women should “dilate or vibrate” their vagina, postulating that some women may prefer to use a vibrator sex toy as an alternative to the medical dilator device, they may find it more acceptable and the vibration may confer a mucosal/epithelial healing advantage.
So there was I, in front of the ethics board, defending my proposal, asking for permission to apply science in the form of a Randomization is the process of randomly dividing into groups the people taking part in a trial. One group (the intervention group) will be given the intervention being tested (for example a drug, surgery, or exercise) and compared with a group which does not receive the intervention (the control group). Clinical trials are research studies involving people who use healthcare services. They often compare a new or different treatment with the best treatment currently available. This is to test whether the new or different treatment is safe, effective and any better than what is currently used. No matter how promising a new treatment may appear during tests in a laboratory, it must go through clinical trials before its benefits and risks can really be known., comparing dilators with vibrators… they listened! The only criticism was my upper age limit …. 60!? Too young, too ageist… no upper limit they said… lesson learnt… scientists will talk about sex, they will listen… You just need to start the conversation. The next stage was to get funding to pay for all the equipment and measuring tools. Taking the project to crusty old male NHS managers was met surprisingly with a tick and a promise to pay for the tests. A conversation in a corridor prompted Sshh!, a women’s emporium in London, to donate vibrators.
What happens when ‘science’ listens?
Forty women enduring radiotherapy to their vagina volunteered to test the vibrators and dilators. The trial showed no proven (or unproven for that matter) advantage in dilating or vibrating. Tons of extra learning noise though, sample size too small (just as in all those studies in the The use of statistical techniques in a systematic review to combine the results of included studies. Sometimes misused as a synonym for systematic reviews, where the review includes a meta-analysis. ), perhaps a different An investigation of a healthcare problem. There are different types of studies used to answer research questions, for example randomised controlled trials or observational studies. design should follow, (postdoc work), lots of interest from other clinicians, so much in fact we decided to get together and look at creating best practice guidelines.
Two years on at the International Gynaecology Cancer Society Congress in Prague, I chaired a multidisciplinary gathering of some 10 countries, using the systematic scientific review and lessons learnt from the trial to encourage agreement on best practice. It took a year of multi-national/disciplinary natter to create the International Guidelines on Vaginal Dilation Therapy[ii], a coup for science listening.
A change in practice
We agreed that we need to stop prescribing dilation during the painful phase of radiotherapy. It cannot be supported by scientific evidence and there is a A way of expressing the chance of an event taking place, expressed as the number of events divided by the total number of observations or people. It can be stated as ‘the chance of falling were one in four’ (1/4 = 25%). This measure is good no matter the incidence of events i.e. common or infrequent. that it could be harmful. Dilation can wait until the pain and tenderness has gone. We recommend that women be given the option to use vibrators instead of dilators. We ask that clinicians LISTEN to women; if they don’t want to use their vagina for penetrative sex, or if salvage treatment for recurrence is not tolerable, logic demands that there is no need to tell her that she has to dilate.
We updated the Cochrane Review Vaginal dilator therapy for women receiving pelvic radiotherapy in 2014, our findings unchanged, but we heard from more clinicians who are listening and want to learn more about how to talk to their patients about sex. We heard and went on to develop the guidelines on assessing and managing sexual concerns for women receiving treatment for cancer.
The Eve Appeal (the UK Gynaecology Cancer charity) provides a specialist information nurse service, Ask Eve.
Eve listens to women’s worries. Betty’s daughter recently called Ask Eve and said that the worse thing about her mother’s cancer treatment was the pain and revulsion as she tried to obey the instruction to dilate and stretch her vagina during the radiotherapy. Ask Eve reassured her that the new scientific position, supported by international guidelines, is that Betty can put the dilators in the drawer, rather than inside herself.
Tracie Miles has nothing to disclose.