Sexual Dysfunction After Breast Cancer
I remember telling a beautiful patient of mine years ago that she had breast cancer. The first thing she said with her face full of worries was that “My husband is a breast guy.” I realized then that for a lot of women, losing this sexual and physical aspect of breast may be much more worrisome than anything else about breast cancer.
Being diagnosed with breast cancer can wreak havoc on your intimacy and sexuality, not only because you have this serious illness that may mean life and death, but also because the treatment of that cancer can change you physically and emotionally.
Some of the breast cancer treatment can put you in either temporary or permanent menopause. Rigorous treatment protocols can cause you to be bone dead tired and the last thing you want to do is even think about sex. Some of the medications used in treatment of breast cancer can make you depressed. Some of the chemotherapy drugs can make you lose hair.
However, none of these can compare to the permanent disfigurement brought on by surgery.
The sexual side effects of breast cancer can linger long after treatment stops. Studies have shown that many women reported sexual difficulties even years after their treatment had ended. According to the National Cancer Institute, about one out of every two women who undergo breast cancer treatment experiences long-term sexual dysfunction. This is scary. But the good news is there is sex after breast cancer if you let yourself embrace the new you!
You work so hard to survive this awful disease and you sacrifice so much to live. So the question you should ask yourself is that once you’ve survived it and you are alive as a result of your will to live, why won’t you really live? Why let yourself be stuck worrying about how you’ll never look the same?
You may not look normal and you may never look the same, but you are alive! So, open your eyes and see how beautiful your world could be. There are people who love you, especially your significant other. So, embrace the new body and bask in the fact that you have another chance at new life.
In order to do that, you need to know what causes problems with your sex life and how to deal with these problems.
Even though you may be missing all or part of your breasts, it is unlikely that your partner stopped loving you because you look different. Although, breasts are often a big part of “looking sexy” and are what people identify as being sexual organs, in majority of cases, your relationship isn’t solely based on these breasts.
One of the ways you and your partner can both get adjusted to this new body, with missing breasts and all, is to be involved in the process together.
I remember a female oncologist telling a patient’s husband to stay out of any treatment discussions because it’s time to take care of his wife. What an arrogant assumption! Your husband or your partner has as much to contribute to this decision as anyone. He will be your support and he will be the one helping you get well. He’ll have to adjust to your new body. If you don’t involve him in the process, how would he make these adjustments?
Taking little steps together towards a common goal, saving your life, will bring you together and make your relationship stronger, even with missing breasts.
It may be helpful to look at pictures of what women look like after surgery so you and your partner have realistic expectations. This may also lessen the shock of waking up from anesthesia and realizing that your body has been permanently altered.
I remember the devastation on my sister’s face when she woke up from anesthesia and saw her bare chest. She had drains coming out of her skin and the large scar that went across her chest weren’t really what she was expecting. It took a long time for her to accept the way she looked and become comfortable with it. So, if you are having a mastectomy, prepare yourself and your partner of what’s coming.
Communication is important. Talk with your partner about what you’re comfortable with, and what you’re not.
It’s very common to hear a woman saying “he won’t touch me.” Have you considered that maybe he’s scared and thinks that you are too fragile to touch? After all, you both looked at death in the face not long ago. Maybe he’s waiting for you to tell him that you are better and strong enough to be touched. Why not make the first move or tell him it’s okay for him to touch you?
If your breasts were major erogenous zones for you before surgery, you may be feeling particularly bereft after a mastectomy or even a lumpectomy. Instead of feeling sad about this missing body part, why not take the opportunity to explore and discover other areas of your body? Your breasts take up less than 5% of your body. You still have 95% of the body parts that can give you pleasure. You may be pleasantly surprised to find out that there are many other parts that can give you more pleasure than your breasts ever did. They are just waiting, undiscovered.
So, be adventurous and take a journey through what feels good and what doesn’t. After all, life is all about discovering things and sensations you haven’t seen and felt yet.
If you aren’t ready to show your new body after your surgery, then cover it with lingerie or try some feathers or whatever strikes your fancy. Consider this an adventure and go shopping for something sexy. Indulge yourself! This is another opportunity to shop till you drop!!
Even if you are mentally ready to resume your sex life, your body may not cooperate. Some of the drugs used in treatment can put you in menopause.
These menopausal symptoms can include problems with your vagina. With menopause, tissues in your vagina become drier and thinner. This can lead to painful sex. Menopause can also make you lose interest in having sex or make it difficult for you to become sexually aroused. Some women lose sensation around their genital area.
If you are experiencing these symptoms, don’t despair. There are solutions. Someone told me once that she has her “getting my groove back” tool kit. It included vaginal moisturizers that can lubricate your vagina and help you regain elasticity and vaginal dilators which can stretch and avoid pain. Hormone creams can also help with some of these symptoms that make sex difficult.
She also told me of a few other sex toys she has acquired over the years to add some spice to her life. So, ladies, be creative. It’s all about how much and what you want to include in this tool box. She also told me that she used to let her husband do all the work in bed. Now, she is a contributing partner. I saw that wicked grin on her face when she told me that. It never hurts to be naughty with your partner, she added.
Despite best efforts, if you are still having difficulties with sex, see a sex therapist. Sounds silly? Not really. They get paid for helping you cope with sex. Therefore, if you and your partner have issues, who better than sex therapist?
There are many women who are in menopause as a result of breast cancer treatment and having normal sex. Knowledge will help you become one of these women. When one of my patients asked me “Why didn’t anyone tell me this before?” I thought well, from now on, I’ll tell anyone who wants to listen.
Remember, you control your life. Don’t let breast cancer dictate how you live. You fought so hard to beat it. Now, it’s time to kick it to the curb and show that awful disease that you are a survivor and you can live a full, healthy life!
If you are single, changes in your body after breast cancer and sexual dysfunction that results from its treatment can make dating terrifying. Instead of hitting the bars to find a date, try focusing on activities that you enjoy. Try not to let cancer be an excuse not to date or meet people. You maybe surprised to find that there are many men who can understand what you have been through.
Wait until you feel secure and confident about yourself. It’s hard to get into a relationship with someone when you can’t deal with the consequences of your cancer yourself. You have to accept it before anyone else can.
You may want to practice what and how you’ll tell someone about your breast cancer. It may be helpful to seek a therapist who can help you with this. Getting this help may help you feel more confident about yourself and how you would react in a social setting.
Think of dating as a learning process. Someone told me that you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find your prince charming. Don’t get discouraged if your first date after breast cancer is perfect. Not too many things in life are perfect. Remember, all of those dates you had before cancer weren’t perfect, were they? So, don’t expect a miracle overnight. Be patient and find what makes you happy.
I tell people that you have to be happy alone before you can be happy with someone else. Therefore, find what makes you happy.