Sex - the sometimes scary and painful 3 letter word for many of us cancer survivors. I went through surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, and all of the horrible side-effects associated with these procedures. Nine months of struggling to stay alive, and now a year post chemo, I am just beginning to recognize myself. Sadly, hormones that may benefit our sex drive certainly affect our cancers (love those aromatase inhibitors), in turn, affecting our bodies and affecting our libido. The research I've read says that about 70% of women who have had breast cancer treatments have some sort of sexual dysfunction as opposed to 40% of women without breast cancer. Is there sex after cancer? Once intercourse was exciting, exhilarating, yet now I have a "sexual disorder/problem." And I didn't bring this upon myself - ahhh cancer, the gift that keeps on giving!
I have an incredibly loving patient husband who has been an amazing caregiver. And he's waiting for me to give him the "come-here" eye. Most of the time he's patient, sometimes he's frustrated. I try to explain to him that my lack of sex drive is complicated. It's not about him - really, it's about me - emotionally and physically. But I'm tired of this entire process being about me!
I'm just beginning to be able to look at my body in the mirror and be OK with my reflection. Lopsided breasts, incisions, discolored skin, weight gain, hair loss, gray circles under my eyes - I'm alive, but there certainly have been sacrifices. Sexuality and femininity are both terms I'm having to redefine - and this has had an impact on our intimacy.
From other breast cancer survivors I've been told, "One day, it will just all come back, you'll be surprised, but it will." And I think - "Time frame, please." From medical professionals I'm told, "Use it or lose it, you don't want your vagina to atrophy, thin out, muscles to weaken." So do I pretend? Do I proceed as if all is normal, hoping that in doing so, my body and mind will respond? Viagra for women?
Now, we do have intercourse, but most of the time my fatigue is so great that I'd rather just go to sleep. And intercourse is occasionally painful, although there are vaginal moisturizers as well as lubricants available (I'm a fan of coconut oil or something without a petroleum or silicone base), vaginal exercises we can all do (remember Kegals?), and there are various dilators, stimulators, vibrators that can help (but even these take energy).
I've asked my husband to hang-in-there while I'm healing, and yet I want him to be passionate as well, not treating me as if I'm a porcelain doll that may break. Yet he worries - he doesn't want to hurt me! And so he hesitantly asks, "Do you think we can make love tonight?" And my response is usually, "Maybe," or, "I'd like to, but I don't know if I can commit." "Let's see how much energy I have." "How about in the morning (when I seem to have more energy)?" And he waits, and I control our sexual relationship - and although it takes two, I would like to be more willing, more available.
Lately we've begun talking about this more openly. It appears to me that we must redefine intercourse - what we had is not what we have, and what we have may be what we get as we move forward. So we have to adapt, rather than wait for that "old-time feeling" to come back. We're learning how to have passionate moments outside of our bedroom. We're learning how to cuddle when reading, watching a movie. We're holding hands more, kissing more, finding moments to say, "I love you" with a clear intention of delivering the message rather than hoping for a romp in bed. I'm learning to tell my husband what touches work, what touches don't (my erogenous zones and arousal abilities have changed).
So here's what I am working on:
1. Communicate my fears, desires, to my partner.
2. Work on what I can fix.
3. Exercise, at least 30 minutes a day.
4. Eat foods that help me heal.
5. Be as positive as possible - seeing this as a hurdle rather than a roadblock.
6. Read up on this topic, so I don't feel so alone, as well as to gain information on how other women are dealing with this. (http://www.lbbc.org/Learn-About-Breast-Cancer/Sex-and-Intimacy-After-a-Breast-Cancer-Diagnosis)
7. Make US a priority.
What works for you? Where are you on this road to sexual strength?