Holding hands with a pink breast cancer ribbon

Guest Blog: Lavinia Winch Discusses 'Managing Intimate Health' Workshops at Breast Cancer Haven

Lavinia Winch
Lavinia Winch is our YES Ambassador. She writes and speaks from both a personal and professional perspective, integrating her own intimate health journey with the knowledge she has gained from liaising with Health Care Professionals, and addressing customer’s sexual health issues over the last ten years. As a patient representative, Lavinia’s experience of a mis-diagnosed vulval condition many years ago, through to a more recent Endometrial Cancer diagnosis and radical hysterectomy, give her valuable insights into many aspects of vaginal and vulval health. Quality of life can be severely compromised if intimate health symptoms are not correctly diagnosed and treated effectively.

Managing Intimate Health Workshops

Breast Cancer Haven was founded by Sara Davenport in 1997. The idea for the charity came following the experience of a close family friend who was diagnosed with breast cancer. Sara was concerned by the lack of emotional support and information available at that time to anyone diagnosed with the disease. There are now eight centres across England offering vital one-to-one emotional, physical and practical support to anyone affected by breast cancer. Visitors are offered an initial assessment and can then access ten free therapy sessions including counselling, acupuncture, massage, reflexology and hypnotherapy, but also practical advice such as life-work coaching and welfare benefits and money advice. New visitors are invited to a ‘Welcome Day’ to find out how Breast Cancer Haven can support them and what is on offer. Some of Breast Cancer Haven centre Managers who meet visitors for their initial assessment raise the issue of intimate health and wellbeing.

I was invited to a Welcome Day to talk about vaginal and vulval health after breast cancer treatment and how YES products can offer some relief to the side effects as a result of chemotherapy and medication. The nearest Breast Cancer Haven to the YES HQ is in Titchfield near Portsmouth. At the first Welcome Day that I attended, it became clear that many of the women had experienced vaginal dryness and painful sex as a result of their treatment, but that they had not been warned of this by their Breast Care Nurses. Struggling with the huge impact their diagnosis had on their life, with body image concerns, fatigue and many other side effects of their medication, the discomfort and realisation that their intimate life was severely compromised was causing great distress. The medication for most oestrogen receptor positive cancers either blocks the oestrogen receptors or halts any oestrogen production in order to prevent recurrence of the cancer. However, they were not aware of the important role that oestrogen plays in vaginal, vulval and bladder health. The short time available for me to explain the role of natural, non-hormonal vaginal lubricants and moisturisers was not sufficient to cover all their concerns and questions, so it was decided that a longer session would be beneficial.

Breast Cancer Haven centres in London and Wessex now run four ‘Managing Intimate Health after Cancer’ workshops over the year. These are free informal group sessions at which I share my personal journey and with the knowledge that I have gained from attending many medical conferences I explain the reasons for their symptoms. Visitors have the choice to share their story, or just listen to the explanation and more importantly learn that what they are experiencing is extremely common amongst menopausal women, even if they have not had cancer treatment. The realisation they are not alone and that there are simple solutions to the physical symptoms of vaginal atrophy clearly helps them feel more positive about seeking help from their doctor.

It is important to make it clear at the outset that an ‘Intimate Health’ workshop is not all about sex. Many women who have had breast cancer may not be sexually active, but vaginal atrophy can cause daily discomfort which does not need to be tolerated. I explain the difference between moisturisers and lubricants, the importance of natural pH balanced products and try to open the discussion up so that they feel less alone. The feedback from the visitors has been extremely positive and we hope to reach many more women in order to ensure that the issues of post-cancer vaginal atrophy and painful sex are recognised, understood and talked about more openly.

No one should have to suffer in silence, especially after the trauma of breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. You can find further information on Breast Cancer Haven and the workshops here.