Have you ever had the experience of starting a new project or beginning work with a new team and all of a sudden there’s a flashy word that no one can seem to get away from? Maybe it’s “innovation” “community” or “engage.” The key is that this word had to represent a BIG idea and also be a little vague… Around WomanLab—our own new flashy project—we definitely have a few words that take the cake. Particularly when speaking with patients, there is a word we use (not gonna lie) a LOT: resources.
Now, don’t get me wrong: “Resources” of all kinds are an incredibly important part of the work here at WomanLab. This is especially because we believe that much of what is most useful to women who are trying to improve their sexual function is not primarily doctors and hospitals. Even with a clinical care team guiding you through the process, non-clinical (*ahem*) resources are often what can help you to be well when there’s not a doctor or nurse in sight.
Still, we want to be specific and avoid making empty promises of “resources” “out there” “somewhere” without being really clear on what we mean. So, here it is: the WomanLab breakdown of what-the-heck-we-mean when we drop that catchall term…. RESOURCES.
Or grocery store, sex shop, etc! Local, inexpensive shops are typically all that’s needed for a woman to begin acquiring the products and devices that allow her to begin and lead her own journey to improved sexual function. For example, one of the most common recommendations for women experiencing sexual function issues is to increase lubrication during sex. If, during penetration of any kind, there is pain or a feeling of dryness that is causing discomfort, a great place to start is with a really good lube. (I like Good Clean Love, myself, or good ol’ fashioned coconut oil.)
Another often used self-care tool is the dilator, a version of which can be purchased at a local sex shop: a dildo! Often, dilators are used when a patient is experiencing pain that prevents or makes difficult penetration during sex (whether by a penis, toy, or other body part). Dilators are available on direct to consumer websites like Soul Source, but for those uninterested in online shopping or an investment in a dilator set, dildos are great options. Like dilators, dildos are great for women to practice stretching the vagina, relaxing the pelvic floor, and gaining the confidence to have intercourse (if that is the goal!).
YOUR LIBRARY/THE INTERNET/ANYTHING ELSE THAT WILL HELP GET INFORMATION INTO THE BRAIN
I like to call the information available on the internet, in the library, or in our doctor’s office knowledge resources. Knowledge resources can range from pamphlets one might find in a doctor’s office, books that can be checked out at your local library, or trusted websites that depend on clinical experience and high quality evidence, such as WomanLab or GoAskAlice.com! Knowledge resources can be an important complement to other resources, for example reading WomanLab blogs (a knowledge resource) might help you learn to more effectively use lubrication (a product) to improve sexual activity.
What is important and powerful about knowledge is that it is for everyone and should not belong to anyone (however, see our thread on open access to see why this is complicated). For the woman who has a strong clinical care team, the women who is not seeing any doctors but has questions about her sexual function, and every woman in between: reading and listening to knowledge resources can be an emboldening first step!
For some of our favorite knowledge resources made just for patients, check out the American Cancer Society’s page on sexuality for the woman with cancer.
An individual’s communities, both big and small, have demonstrated to be an important way many cancer patients and others find support through the process of navigating their disease or sexual function issues. Consider this quote from a patient educator/patient on the power of meet-ups:
“As a patient educator, it’s a privilege to be able to attend cancer survivorship or support events. It is powerful to be around a group of people who have some sense of what you have gone through, or who have had a similar experience. As someone who has not experienced cancer, when I’ve participated in sessions at these events that focus on changes to sexual function due to cancer or treatment, it’s striking how open participants are about their concerns or how they are doing in this area of their life. Many participants also benefit from these sessions because they gain reassurance that this is a common problem affecting so many people, and that there are things that they can do to improve their sexual function.”
For this patient educator and for the woman who wrote the above note after attending a community meeting to discuss sex and aging, simply being around people with similar experiences can be productive and powerful. For some women these communities exist organically, but it is also possible to find others dealing with a similar issue. For example, the American Cancer Society allows patients to search for support programs in their area.
Here it is worth thinking back to a previous point: in the real world, these different kinds of resources are often all mixed up! One of the most valuable benefits of forming a strong community with whom you can discuss these issues, is that they’re a great place to also learn what knowledge others have gained and what products have worked for them.
YOUR DOCTOR (OF COURSE)
With all this talk of non-clinical resources, it’s worth repeating: we love doctors, nurses, and other members of a woman’s clinical care team!! The advice a woman receives from these experts can help guide her through all of the other resources we discussed above—especially since there really is so much out there. We want to stress, however, there’s a lot that you can try on your own–without the evaluation of a physician–to improve your sexual function. So get reading, building communities, and maybe even doing a little shopping. If you have a gynecologist or primary care doctor you trust, consider keeping them in the loop on your progress and taking advantage of their advice!