Sexual intimacy is a subject that is difficult for many breast cancer survivors to discuss. The challenges of sexual intimacy are often created as a direct result of cancer treatments or can occur from the after effects which result in emotional scarring.
Bonnie Annis is a breast cancer survivor, diagnosed in 2014 with stage 2b invasive ductal carcinoma with metastasis to the lymph nodes. She is an avid photographer, freelance writer/blogger, wife, mother and grandmother.
There are two subjects that seem to be considered taboo when discussing breast cancer. The first is death and the second is sex. No one likes to talk about death, even when it doesn’t relate to breast cancer. Death is a touchy subject, probably because of the finality associated with it. But why is the subject of sex considered taboo? Don’t those who’ve suffered breast cancer still deserve to enjoy practicing the magical gift of sexual intimacy? The answer to that question is complicated. While many diagnosed with breast cancer do still actively participate in and enjoy sexual intimacy, there are a large, growing number of those who do not.
Before a diagnosis of breast cancer, many women enjoy an active sexual life with their partners and consider it a priority in their lives. After cancer, women may shift that priority from the top of their list to the bottom, and with good reason. Medical treatment, surgery or physical changes in the body may cause the patient pain. Medication may affect libido. Challenges compound when one or more of these issues damage the physical relationship between a woman and her mate. The woman isn’t the only one affected by breast cancer. Although her body is the one that has been physically scarred by cancer, the partner often feels the effects, too.
After breast cancer, a woman views her body differently. It’s not the same as it once was, even if she only endured a lumpectomy, the evidence of being scarred by cancer is a reality. Learning to accept not only physical but emotional changes becomes a challenge.
During the active treatment phase, there are valid reasons for avoiding physical intimacy. Incisions may be in the beginning stages of healing. They are delicate and tender to the touch. Chemotherapy may cause violent bouts of nausea or diarrhea. Radiation can bring on intense fatigue or skin burns. While none of these side effects from cancer treatment are wanted, they are a real possibility and can contribute to a loss of interest by both parties.
But what do women do in the meantime? As they are healing from surgery or completing their treatments, are they just to forget about their sexuality? Though it may be the furthest thing from their mind, women are still sexual beings with physical needs and desires. What about their husbands or significant others? Are they supposed to forego any form of sexual intimacy with their partner during the active treatment phase? These are all delicate questions and there are no pat answers.
It is normal and healthy for men and women to have sexual relationships. Our bodies were created to naturally fit together for the purpose of pro-creation and intimacy. Breast cancer can certainly put a strain on the physical relationship between a woman and her significant other, so how do we overcome this problem? Does the problem of physical intimacy affect all women with breast cancer?
Women aren’t the only ones whose sexual relationships are affected by breast cancer. Men are affected, too. In a relationship where the woman has experienced the trauma of breast cancer, the male may feel his sexual needs have been pushed aside. While the couple is focused on her healing, the man may be afraid to voice his needs for sexual fulfillment. He doesn’t want to impose his needs on his fragile spouse. As time goes on, he may become discouraged and unable to be as patient as he was at the onset of the illness. This can create sexual tension between the husband and wife.
A good piece of advice involves listening to the needs of the other person. The woman affected by breast cancer knows her body well. She quickly learns her physical limitations after surgery and treatment. She may not be in the mood for anything other than cuddling, and she needs the freedom to have this desire respected. Communication is the key to understanding. The woman should feel comfortable enough to voice her concerns and desires. There may have been extenuating circumstances to the procedures she’s endured. These circumstances may have caused bodily changes that could affect how she responds both physically and emotionally. Her mate should practice patience and understanding.
A return to sexual intimacy after breast cancer surgery and/or treatment may take time and may require professional help. Some women experience painful vaginal dryness after chemotherapy or after taking medications such as Tamoxifen. This condition could contribute to discomfort and unsuccessful sexual relations. A woman shouldn’t be afraid to share these types of problems with a medical professional. There are many options available to help ease physical discomfort and a trained professional can help. Prescriptions for vaginal lubricants can combat dryness along with other remedies to alleviate pain.
There’s no reason why a woman whose life has been touched by breast cancer can’t enjoy a beautiful, fulfilling sexual relationship. No embarrassment or fear should prevent a woman from seeking help. Sexual intimacy is a vital part of a woman’s life and she should not be denied the right to experience it. For men, the situation is vastly different. Your significant other has felt the effects of breast cancer in ways you could never imagine, but is aware of your physical needs, too. Patience, love and understanding are the best gifts you can offer as you begin to reconnect physically. Cancer doesn’t have to destroy everything it touches. Sexual intimacy can be restored through the efforts of both parties and when that doesn’t work, a professional can help.