Life after a pelvic exenteration (complete pelvic organ removal)

A pelvic exenteration is the most extreme pelvic surgery you can get, whereby pretty much everything is removed, usually due to a return of cancerous growths after radiation or chemotherapy.

Structures and organs removed in a pelvic exenteration

  • Uterus
  • Cervix
  • Ovaries
  • Fallopian tubes
  • Vagina
  • Bladder (sometimes)
  • Urethra (sometimes)
  • Rectum (sometimes)

An opening will be made for urine and one for stool, called stomas or ostomies, and your vagina can be rebuilt, called a vaginoplasty. A pelvic exenteration is a radical surgery and salvage procedure for recurrent gynaecological or rectal/colonic cancers. The cancer may have previously been treated with surgery and/or radiation.

Ovarian cancer is not usually treated with a pelvic exenteration due to the spread that is associated with ovarian cancers. The operation comes with significant risks, though improvements in hospital care have reduced negative outcomes.

The five-year survival rate of successful surgery is between 20 and 50 per cent.

Recovery from a pelvic exenteration

Pelvic exenteration is a massive surgery and recovery takes a long time. It can take six months to feel fully healed up after this surgery, and up to two years to really appreciate the changes that have been made to how your body works.

Quality of life takes a dive after surgery, but it improves as you adjust to the new you.

Penetrative sex after a pelvic exenteration

Penetrative sex is impossible without a vagina, but with a new vagina (the neovagina created via vaginoplasty), it can be possible to enjoy sex. The clitoral tissue may still remain completely intact, along with the outer genitalia (vulva), and therefore sexual pleasure and orgasm may still be within your grasp.

One of the issues with this type of surgery is the removal of the clitoral nerve supply, which can cause issues, but with persistence, orgasm and pleasure can be had.

Talk to your doctor

Every surgery is different, so talk to your surgeon before the procedure and discuss your clitoral nerves and see what they can do to help keep these intact.

Recurrent cervical cancer – the options are limited

If cervical cancers recur, and other treatments have failed, surgical resection may be one of the only options left for removing the cancer from the body.

Surgery is difficult to perform properly on radiated tissue since it causes changes in the tissue that don’t permit a lot of proper healing to occur, and can destroy elasticity. This makes stitching tissue together fraught with difficulties.

When a pelvic exenteration is warranted

Usually a woman having a pelvic exenteration considered will have recurrent cervical cancers and have received radiation therapy, with a chance of a cure after the procedure.

Sometimes a pelvic exenteration may be performed as a palliative care option when there are unmanageable symptoms and fistulas appearing in the pelvic area due to cancers.

When a pelvic exenteration will not be performed (contraindications)

Anyone presenting with certain metastasis (peritoneal, bowel, distant) can’t undergo the procedure, however this will be determined on a case-by-case basis by a specialist.

Jessica Lloyd - Vulvovaginal Specialist Naturopathic Practitioner, BHSc(N)

Jessica is a degree-qualified naturopath (BHSc) specialising in vulvovaginal health and disease, based in Melbourne, Australia.

Jessica is the owner and lead naturopath of My Vagina, and is a member of the:

  • International Society for the Study of Vulvovaginal Disease (ISSVD)
  • International Society for the Study of Women's Sexual Health (ISSWSH)
  • National Vulvodynia Association (NVA) Australia
  • New Zealand Vulvovaginal Society (ANZVS)
  • Australian Traditional Medicine Society (ATMS)