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Last Updated: Sunday, 26 March 2006, 00:12 GMT
'I am fighting for my sex life'
By Jane Elliott
BBC News health reporter

A silhouette
The condition is often missed
Fabia Brackenbury, has been fighting for the last decade to keep her sex life alive following a skin disorder.

She claims GPs are often ignoring her condition and telling patients that they must 'just live with' it.

Fabia, 59, from Lyme Regis in Dorset, has lichen sclerosis, a chronic inflammatory skin disorder that can affect anyone, but is most common in women.

It usually affects the vulva and the anal area and peaks during the menopause. It affects about one in 300 women.


Fabia said the condition has had a profound effect on her whole life, even contributing to the breakdown of her marriage of over 30 years.

"My skin splits when I have intercourse and it is not an easy thing to live with. You can never go to bed with your husband or partner and know it will not be painful.

Fabia Brackenbury
Vulval itching is one of the first symptoms of vulval cancer
Fabia Brackenbury

"I had vulval itching and it was worse than thrush. I went to my GP and he treated me for thrush and did not examine me.

"Then I started to get small paper cuts in that area, so I went back to the doctor and he finally tested me for thrush and my swab came back clear.

"He said that because of my age it was either lichen sclerosis or the menopause.

"Finally, he said it was the menopause and I would have to live with it."

But she said the condition was too painful and distressing.

"My vulval skin was very pale and fragile. I got a biopsy and got to see a dermatologist who gave me ointments for three months. It went into an 18- month remission and then it started up again.

"Now I am experiencing a lot of splitting with intercourse. My vulval skin breaks and becomes raw and sore and feels like somebody has taken a brillo pad and just rubbed me with it.

"I feel like I have been fighting a battle for 10 years to keep my sex life active and I feel like I am losing that battle."


She said the condition is causing scarring which has caused the inner lips of the vulva to disappear and the clitoris to become covered with scar tissue.

When splits occur it makes sex painful and difficult.

She said that some people with the condition also have problems urinating because the labia fuse together and cover the urethra.

Fabia added that because of the taboo nature of the condition many women were embarrassed to go to their GP for help.

"A lot of women do not seek help early enough. They self-treat and do not talk to their GPs and sometimes important things are overlooked."

She said some vulval conditions, like hers, were being dismissed as thrush and this could cause some serious problems.

"Most modern women are brought up in a culture of thinking that everything that itches is thrush. They are not aware, or have not been made aware, that it could be something else.

"Not everything that itches is thrush and vulval itching is one of the first symptoms of vulval cancer. In 2004, 364 women died from vulval cancer," she added.

Dr David Nunns, consultant gynaecologist at Nottingham City Hospital, said many women with itching symptoms were getting over-the-counter remedies themselves, but he stressed that if their thrush did not respond to treatment they should be asking their GP to give them a thorough examination.

These women have got such a bad deal from doctors, it defies belief
Dr David Nunns

Dr Nunns, who runs the Vulval Pain Society, said too many women were just being fobbed off.

"We are trying to empower women. There are a group of women who think they have chronic thrush, but if they have chronic itching and soreness that does not clear up with anti-fungal treatment they should go back to their GP.

"Ninety-five times out of a 100 thrush will clear up with treatment. If it does not then these women should ask for their doctor to take a history and examine them properly."

He said too many GPs were not taking the women's concerns seriously enough.

He added that with the correct treatment for lichen sclerosis most women responded and their conditions could be alleviated, although some like Fabia are more serious cases.

"Things are better than they were 10 years ago. But there is so much misery that goes along with these conditions. These women have got such a bad deal from doctors, it defies belief."

Dr Nunns said the condition also carried a 5% risk over time of vulval cancer so it was important that women got themselves properly checked out.

He added that men were also vulnerable to the condition, which affected the foreskin, which they can't pull back and then becomes painful.

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