In the United States, more than 3 million women are living with a breast cancer diagnosis. With improved survival rates, more women than ever before are living with the side effects of breast cancer treatment. Of these survivors, up to 70 percent experience sexual problems because of the side effects of treatment. Most women are told their only options for relief from painful sex are topical lubricants or hormonal prescriptions, which most women with breast cancer are advised against using or prefer not to use.
Vaginal laser is a non-hormonal treatment, which is reported to alleviate symptoms of dryness and pain in 95 percent of the women who undergo the laser treatment. However, because insurance does not cover the laser treatments, it is cost prohibitive for many women. To expand access to this innovative treatment, the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause recently launched the Breast Cancer Vaginal Health Access (BRAVA) program, which will offer complimentary vaginal and vulvar laser treatments to eligible women living with a breast cancer diagnosis.
“The Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause is thrilled to expand access to this treatment that can dramatically improve the quality of life for women with breast cancer who have been living with painful sex and other sexual problems because of their treatment,” said Lauren Streicher, MD, director of Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause. “We’re thankful for the generosity of donors to the Northwestern Memorial Foundationwho have made the BRAVA program possible so that we can help more women overcome the physical consequences of breast cancer treatment.”
Many women with a breast cancer diagnosis develop vaginal dryness and thinning of the tissue, a condition known as genitourinary syndrome of menopause. Symptoms of genitourinary syndrome of menopause can include any of the following vulvar, vaginal or urinary symptoms: dryness, irritation, itching, urinary frequency, urinary urgency, recurrent urinary tract infections and painful intercourse
“For many women, even with the use of lubricants or long-acting vaginal-moisturizers, these symptoms make intercourse painful or even impossible,” said Dr. Streicher. “While we know hormonal treatments can often alleviate symptoms, for most women it is either advised against or they prefer to avoid hormones. That’s why the development of the non-hormonal laser treatment is an exciting step in helping women living with genitourinary of menopause. Our center has successfully treated hundreds of women who are now pain-free and able to have pleasurable sexual activity. Unfortunately, because insurance does not cover laser treatments, too few women have access to this option.”
Women who are interested in the BRAVA program can request an appointment through the program website (https://sexmedmenopause.nm.org/brava-program.html). The program coordinator will follow up to schedule an appointment for an evaluation at the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause. During the visit, the patient will receive information about all treatment options, which may include laser treatment. Eligible patients may then complete an application for CO2 laser treatments.
To be eligible for the BRAVA program, women must meet all of the following criteria:
- Current or past diagnosis of breast cancer
- Post menopause
- Symptoms of genitourinary syndrome of menopause
- Pre-screen evaluation at the Northwestern Medicine Center for Sexual Medicine and Menopause
- Financially unable to pay for the CO2 laser treatment (with documentation)
“Sexual problems can have a devastating impact on a woman’s quality of life, her self-esteem, her relationships and dating,” said Dr. Streicher. “We have seen the success of laser treatments in many women and ability to pay should not stand in the way of a woman getting the help she needs. We are proud to bring the BRAVA program to Chicago and hope to help many women with breast cancer get access to this innovative treatment.”