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Mindfulness improves quality of life after ovary removal

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01 February 2019

Mindfulness can improve a person’s quality of life after ovary removal in both the short and long term. It relieves menopausal symptoms, but does not clearly solve sexual complaints. This is what Catheleine van Driel of the UMCG writes in her PhD thesis. The results of her research could represent a first step towards offering psychological treatments more frequently to women with acute menopausal complaints who have their ovaries removed as a preventative measure. Van Driel will be awarded her PhD at the University of Groningen on 4 February.

People with a BRCA-1 or BRCA-2 gene mutation stand a greatly increased chance of breast and ovarian cancer. Because there are no reliable screening options of ovarian cancer these women are advised to have their ovaries removed as a preventative measure, before their risk increases. For many women this is before they are 40 years of age. Once a person’s ovaries have been removed, menopause begins straight away, as do the accompanying symptoms. Although hormone replacement can be used to treat these symptoms, these cannot be used by those who have had breast cancer. A large number of people who have had their ovaries removed therefore suffer from severe menopausal symptoms at a young age that can greatly reduce their quality of life. 

Stress reduction throu​gh mindfulness

‘There are two ways to improve living with menopausal symptoms: one is to focus on reducing the number of symptoms and the other is to learn strategies for dealing with these symptoms’, says Van Driel. ‘ Hot flushes can trigger stress and this can mean that people are less able to cope with these hot flushes. Mindfulness can help to reduce stress and can therefore increase quality of life.’

Many of the previous studies were of people who entered menopause naturally. ‘We wanted to find out whether mindfulness would also help younger people who have undergone ovary removal and suddenly enter menopause, and whether that effect is also noticeable and measurable in the long term.’ Van Driel therefore studied the effect of mindfulness on more than 60 women. ‘These women were given “standard” stress-reducing mindfulness training, which is available throughout the country. It was important to us that the intervention that we offered for stress reduction is readily available.’ 

Mindfulness did improve the quality of life of this group of women. They learnt strategies for dealing with their menopausal symptoms and were thus less affected by the symptoms. What was unusual in her study was that this improvement was still noticeable and measurable a year after the training. ‘Previous studies only looked at the short-term effect of mindfulness.’

Sexua​​l problems

‘In previous studies of stress reduction and menopausal symptoms, the emphasis was always on menopausal symptoms such as hot flushes’, Van Driel explains. ‘The studies often fail to investigate the effect on sexual consequences of menopause, whereas this can be very bothersome.’ She mentions loss of libido, vaginal dryness and pain during intercourse as examples. ‘We very consciously inquired about sexual problems, because they can also affect people’s quality of life.’ However, Van Driel did not find that mindfulness affected sexual functioning. ‘It is therefore important in follow-up studies that researchers look for ways to solve sexual problems, for instance by administering local hormones and interventions aimed at libido. It would also be interesting to focus part of the mindfulness training on sexuality. An adapted mindfulness training programme might be effective.’ 

Curriculum vitae

C.M.G. (Catheleine) van Driel (1989) studied medicine at the University of Groningen. She performed her research at the UMCG Cancer Research Center Groningen. The title of her thesis is ‘Risk-reducing surgery’. She is now training to be a psychiatrist at the UMCG. 

Read more about Van Driel’s research in the UMCG science magazine KennisInZicht​.