Virtually all women who are diagnosed with breast cancer will also experience shifts in their sex lives – some temporary, some permanent. But when we explore just how deeply our sexual patterns are impacted, there’s no single narrative – we all go through something different. Between increased levels of anxiety and depression following a diagnosis, various side effects during and post-treatment, bodily changes and discomfort, or even sudden-onset menopause, our desires for intimacy can shift drastically. Some women crave more tenderness to make them feel normal during uncertain times, while others lose their sex drive and need a full-on hiatus.
Despite how universal these challenges are, there’s still little discussion around the subject of intimacy after breast cancer. So, we’re pulling back the veil. Here’s an overview of ways treatment can affect our physical and intimate relationships, how to improve our sense of self, sexually, methods of dealing with early menopause and more.
Side Effects of Treatment
Surgery, radiation, chemotherapy and hormone therapy can all cause physical changes that impact our sexual interest and/or response, such as vaginal dryness, infections, pain during intercourse, loss of sensation, reduced libido and symptoms of menopause. These side effects, for many of us, make us want to skip out on sex altogether, but there are prospects for managing our symptoms.
It’s most important that we talk to our doctors and share what’s happening with our body, as they may have tips, natural product suggestions or safe medications that can provide relief and offset our symptoms. Naturopaths, acupuncturists and other alternative therapies can be a great addition to modern medicine as well. Sexual issues typically do not just go away, so it’s best to understand our options, communicate with both experts and our intimate partners, and look for solutions to bring pleasure back to our body.
Physical Changes and Body Image
Along with the emotional stressors that cancer treatment causes, we also face changes to our physical body. Learning to be comfortable and confident in our own skin during and after breast cancer treatment is a personal journey. We have scars, lose our breast(s) and experience changes to our erogenous zones. Others drop or gain a lot of weight and have hair loss or thinning. All of these shifts in our appearance, and time spent adapting to our new body, can make us feel less comfortable, less sexy and less like ourselves. In the process of rebuilding our self-esteem, it’s important to take time to get to know our new and/or different needs, focus on our well-being, and truly believe that we deserve love, admiration and intimate pleasure. Regular self-care and therapy can work wonders here.
Intimate Relationships & Dating
From nausea to pain, lymphedema to exhaustion, it helps if we’re honest with our significant others and share how and what we’re experiencing physiologically and psychologically. If we’re feeling depleted, it’s important to put our body first and get the rest we need (we deserve it!), yet our partners may at times be confused or unsure as to the best ways of showing support and affection. A common response is to retreat or wait for cues regarding when to resume an intimate relationship, out of patience and empathy. But, if we’re already feeling down or insecure, sometimes this behavior can be misinterpreted as rejection or lack of interest. Ultimately, discussing the hopes and fears on both sides, and comforting one another, is key to deepening the communication and connection, making way for a satisfying intimate, and hopefully, healthy sex life.
As for dating, body image and sexual changes from breast cancer definitely complicate matters. As we learn to accept our new body, we also think about how a new partner might react to physical things like scars or reconstructed breast(s). We wonder how they might respond to the fact that we faced a life-threatening illness or sexual challenges such as needing lubricant or a potential loss of fertility. These are all real issues that may feel daunting to envision discussing with someone new. However, as social creatures, it’s essential that we don’t let cancer be an excuse for not dating or meeting people. Once trust and friendship are established, the right person will be able to handle our history and find us all the more attractive for enduring it.
How to Improve Our Sexuality
Exercise and yoga are proven to help improve our body image and desire for intimacy, as well as reduce anxiety, stress, distress and depression. In addition, cognitive behavioral therapy can help us learn to relax more, improve our sexual functions, such as arousal and desire, and reduce the fear of recurrence and fatigue. Giving ourselves the gift of pleasure is one that we’ll never regret.
"Intimacy is a totally different dimension. It is allowing the other to come into you, to see you as you see yourself." — Osho