written by Brianna Flaherty

Body Banter

Cancer and Leaks: A Self-Care Guide

It’s National Breast Cancer Awareness month, so we’re giving a shout out to all our readers who have walked through fire (literally, if you’re out there, but also in the form of radiation and chemotherapy) and come out the other side. A cancer diagnosis of any kind can be a scary, life-altering moment, and treatments like chemo and radiation come with their own unpleasant set of symptoms. They can cause hair loss, low energy, and nausea for starters, but cancer treatments are also a major known cause of leaks and pelvic floor dysfunction.

To find out best practices for taking care of your bod and drying up leaks after treatment, I talked to Dr. Rachel Gelman (of constipation fame!), a clinical specialist at the Pelvic Health and Rehabilitation Center in San Francisco. Among other things, I learned that our bodies are pretty damn resilient.

Why cancer causes leaks

It’s important to know that cancer doesn’t have to be “down there” to cause pelvic floor dysfunction. Rachel says there are a bunch of reasons cancer treatments might lead to bladder leaks:

  • Neuropathy, AKA damage to the nerves that control your bodily functions.
  • Radiation therapy or surgery around/on your bladder, which can cause irritation and inflammation.
  • Treatments that trigger early menopause or lower your hormone levels. Rachel explains that many women treated for breast cancer are given hormone suppressants that trigger menopause, which in turn makes your hormone levels drop, and means your pelvic floor muscles get a little lax.
  • Medications that act as diuretics, which can make you feel the urge a lot more often than you used to. Diuretics aren’t a cancer-specific explanation for leaks, but they’re a definite culprit that can lead to overactive bladder syndrome and urge incontinence, no matter when or why you’re taking them.
  • Certain abdominal or pelvic surgeries like hysterectomies or colonectomies can impact your vaginal tissue and the function of your pelvic floor, too.

No matter the cause of your leaks post-cancer, giving yourself the time (and tools!) to recover will only be beneficial for your bod. Rachel explains that “cancer impacts someone not only physically, but mentally and emotionally as well.” In other words, cancer has a biopsychosocial impact, which means your health is affected by biological factors (like your bodily response to the disease and treatment), psychological (illness is mentally stressful, y’all), and social factors (human interaction isn’t always easy). Your bod has been through a lot—and so have you, but there are plenty of ways to start feeling your best again.

Be kind to your body

Getting active again is a key part of recovery. I’m not saying you should join Crossfit and start hulking out of your tees, but it’s good to slowly re-energize yourself. Yoga, daily walks, and other gentle exercises are a way to kindly re-introduce your body to its own strength.

Give your brain a break

Mindfulness and meditation are easy to dismiss as catch-all cures for any medical malady these days, but they’re proven tools for lowering stress and anxiety, and they can offer waaay more than just a mental break. When your mind is relaxed, your muscles can relax, too—including the muscles that make up your pelvic floor.

Eat for your health

This is a rule of thumb that’s kind of always great to live by, but no judgment if you’re not already living the most nutritious lifestyle. After cancer treatment, your bod is probably lacking in some basic nutrients, and if you leak I have good news: many of the nutrients you’re missing are *conveniently* found in bladder-friendly foods. Rachel recommends working with a nutritionist who can give you an individualized diet plan to promote healing and boost your energy levels.

Talk to your doctor

If you’re experiencing painful sex, leaks, or other symptoms of pelvic floor dysfunction after cancer, don’t be bashful. You deserve to feel great, and your oncologist or primary care doctor can help diagnose your symptoms, refer you to an expert, or walk you through treatment options.

Try pelvic floor physical therapy

Pelvic floor physical therapy is a potentially great way to reconnect with your body and start addressing your leaks. Rachel says pelvic floor PT isn’t always the end-all solution, but it can be a great physical therapy option to improve your symptoms. You can start your PT search here.

Lean on your support system

This might look like spending more time with close friends and family but, if your first response is that you don’t have a support system, you’ve got options. Rachel says most hospitals and medical groups have information readily available to connect you with cancer support groups and other resources. If you’re feeling shy, there are also databases like this one that allow you to search for groups in your area.

Have you been through cancer treatment? Share your advice for treating your bod well in our comments section.

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