Surgical Procedures: Pelvic Exenteration

Author: OncoLink Team
Last Reviewed: January 12, 2018

What is a pelvic exenteration and how is it performed?

A pelvic exenteration is the removal of a woman's uterus, cervix, ovaries, fallopian tubes, vagina and at times, the bladder, urethra and/or bowel, anus and rectum.

There are three types of pelvic exenteration:

  • Anterior: Removal of all reproductive organs and bladder. 
  • Posterior: Removal of all reproductive organs and bowel.
  • Total: The bladder, urethra, rectum, anus, colon and reproductive organs are removed. This requires the placement of two ostomies (holes), one for urine and one for stool.

An ostomy to excrete stool is called a colostomy. The part of the colostomy seen on the abdomen is called the stoma and will be covered by a collection bag.

When the bladder and urethra are removed, a urinary diversion (a way to get urine to the outside of the body) will be made. During this procedure your kidneys and ureters are reconnected to the urinary diversion, which will exit through the abdomen. There are two types of urinary diversions with stomas- an ileal conduit and a urinary pouch. The ileal conduit will use a collection bag around the stoma. With a urinary pouch, you need to place a tube (catheter) into the hole to drain the urine.

Women may have surgery to rebuild or reconstruct a vagina. This new vagina is called a "neovagina". The neovagina is made by using skin and/or muscle from other parts of the body. Ways to make a neovagina include:

  • Skin Grafting: Skin taken from other parts of the body is used to make the new vagina. When using only skin grafts, vaginal stents will be needed to maintain elasticity (stretching) of the new vaginal tissues and prevent shrinkage, scarring or closure. At first, the stent will be worn all the time, then usage will be decreased to just wearing it for most of the day for many months. Often, after a few months, women can either use a tube, dilator or vaginal intercourse to keep the vagina open.
  • Muscle flap and skin grafting: Muscle flaps and skin grafts can be used in the creation of a neovagina. Often muscle and skin from the lower chest and abdomen are used. This is called a vertical rectus abdominis muscle flap (VRAM). Other muscle flap areas may be used as well. This procedure will allow for better sensation and patency. Although this neovagina will look like the pre-surgery vagina, the sensation and function will be different.

A neovagina does not have the ability to cleanse itself, which requires douching to prevent vaginal discharge and odor. You will be told how and when to do this. Light bleeding or spotting after having intercourse is normal. Heavy vaginal bleeding is not and you should contact your care team if this occurs. Having an orgasm is possible, but can be hard.

If reconstruction is not wanted, the vagina will be closed with skin.

A pelvic exenteration may be used to treat some cases of gynecological cancers, such as recurrent cancers of the uterus, cervix, vulva or vagina.

This surgery is done using an up and down incision to access the pelvic organs. Drains will be placed. A catheter will drain urine and bags will be placed over the ostomy stomas. Bandages will also be on the abdomen and inner thighs, if reconstructive surgery was done.

What are the risks of having a pelvic exenteration?

As with any surgery, there are risks and possible side effects. These can be:

  • Blood loss.
  • Reaction to anesthesia. (Anesthesia is the medication you are given to help you sleep through the surgery, not remember it and manage pain. Reactions can include wheezing, rash, swelling and low blood pressure.)
  • Infection.
  • Wound separation.
  • Anastomotic breakdown (Breakdown of the areas joining the stomas, colon and/or ureters).
  • Fistula (A hole).
  • Bowel obstruction.
  • Blood clots.
  • Flap and or stoma necrosis (Flap and or stoma tissue death).
  • Lymphedema (Swelling). 
  • Altered sensation.
  • Decrease in quality of life.

What is recovery like?

The hospital stay for a pelvic exenteration is typically 7 to 10 days, depending on the extent of the procedure you have had.

Early walking and deep breathing will be encouraged to prevent blood clots and pneumonia. If a vaginal reconstruction was done, you will only be able to lie on your back, side, or stand. You will be unable to sit for 6-8 weeks.

Your medical team will discuss with you the medications you will be taking for blood clot, infection, pain, and constipation prevention, among others.

Your healthcare provider will talk to you about any restrictions while you are at home based on the extent of your surgical procedure. Typically, a nurse will visit you at home to teach you stoma, drain, and incisional care.

Until your healthcare team advises otherwise, it is important that you:

  • Get adequate rest.
  • Walk as tolerated.
  • Avoid sitting for 6-8 weeks following vaginal reconstruction.
  • Avoid house work and lifting.
  • Follow vaginal dilation instructions and do not place anything other than what you are instructed into the vagina.

What will I need at home?

  • Thermometer to check for fever, which can be a sign of infection.
  • Loose clothes and underwear.
  • Incision care items, often times supplied by the hospital/provider's office.
  • Sanitary pads for vaginal bleeding/discharge.

Symptoms to report to your healthcare team include:

  • Fever. Your care team will tell you at what temperature they should be contacted.
  • Any new or worsening pain. 
  • Nausea/Vomiting.
  • Vaginal bleeding or foul smelling discharge.
  • Urinary problems such as burning, inability to pass urine from stoma or pouch.
  • Constipation.
  • Wound pain, swelling, redness, discharge, opening.

Care of Incision

You will be told how to care for you incision. Incisions should be kept clean and dry. Shower as advised by your team.

Be sure to look for signs of infection including redness, swelling, drainage or separation (opening) of the incision and report these to your provider.

If staples are present, they will be removed either in the hospital or at your first follow up visit.

Wear loose fitting clothes to avoid irritation of the incision.

How can I care for myself?

You may need a family member or friend to help you with your daily tasks until you are feeling better. It may take some time before your team tells you that it is ok to go back to your normal activity.

Be sure to take your prescribed medications as directed to prevent pain, infection and/or constipation. Call your team with any new or worsening symptoms.

There are ways to manage constipation after your surgery. You can change your diet, drink more fluids, and take over-the-counter medications. Talk with your care team before taking any medications for constipation. 

Taking deep breaths and resting can help manage pain, keep your lungs healthy after anesthesia, and promote good drainage of lymphatic fluid. Try to do deep breathing and relaxation exercises a few times a day in the first week, or when you notice you are extra tense.

  • Example of a relaxation exercise: While sitting, close your eyes and take 5-10 slow deep breaths. Relax your muscles. Slowly roll your head and shoulders.

This article contains general information. Please be sure to talk to your care team about your specific plan and recovery.

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