Recover Overcoming Treatment Intimacy
If you notice a change in your desire for intimacy and/or interest in sexual activity after breast cancer treatment, you are not alone. Many women experience this feeling during treatment and also experience lingering effects. According to the National Cancer Institute, about one out of every two women who have undergone breast cancer treatment experiences long-term sexual dysfunction.
However, the good news is that this is temporary. You do eventually return to a state of good sexual health. It just takes time.
Sexual dysfunction following breast cancer treatment can be both physical and psychological. Hormonal therapy, chemotherapy, surgery or radiation can cause vaginal dryness and pain. A negative body image, performance anxiety and depression can also lead to sexual dysfunction.
The side effects of chemotherapy, as well as radiation, often can leave you with a low libido, creating little energy or desire for sex. One key side effect is early menopause, which causes changes in the body that reduce sexual pleasure even more. To combat this, some women use postmenopausal hormones for a short period of time to relieve menopausal symptoms. However, this option is not recommended for breast cancer survivors because postmenopausal hormones can raise blood estrogen levels and increase the risk of recurrence.
You can learn more about the effects of breast cancer treatment by reading the Mayo Clinic’s article Cancer treatment for women: Possible sexual side effects.
Breast cancer can also change the way you see your body. As a result of surgery and other forms of treatment, women are affected by the physical changes that occur in their bodies. Often, they have a poor self image and feel unattractive and undesirable. Many women, perhaps, can overcome these feelings by reading a great book, Show Me: A Photo Collection of Breast Cancer Survivors’ Lumpectomies, Mastectomies, Breast Reconstructions and Thoughts on Body Image. The book was created by women in a cancer survivors’ group at Penn State. There is also an interesting body painting initiative, the Breast Cancer Awareness Body Painting Project, that celebrates the beauty of survivors’ bodies after treatment.
Getting back to Dating
LIVESTRONG has some key tips on how to resume your dating life:
Wait to let your date know about your cancer. You may be tempted to share this information immediately in the interest of full disclosure, but you don't want your cancer to garner you a pity date or become the most interesting thing about you. Go on a few dates to make sure there’s real interest before you decide how to discuss it in a casual way.
Monitor your sex drive. Some medications and treatments that keep the cancer at bay can affect your sex drive and make you feel less interested in intimacy and sex. You may feel broken or as though you don't have much to offer a potential partner. But remember that your body has helped you beat cancer, and with the help of your physician, you can regain your romantic and sex life.
How to Overcome Issues with Sex and Intimacy
The first step to overcoming issues with intimacy is to communicate with your partner. You should share openly about what you’re feeling and what you are – and aren’t -- comfortable with. Your partner needs to know where you are in your recovery and how it may potentially affect your relationship.
Jean Carter, PhD., a licensed psychologist and the counselor for the sexual health program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, recommends the following for overcoming issues with intimacy. She called them your “getting my groove back” tool kit:
Vaginal moisturizers. These are used during sex. They are like the moisturizers you use on your face and hands. They are suppositories that are inserted into the vagina, adding moisture back into the vaginal space and giving it natural elasticity. The moisturizer is absorbed, which helps keep the vagina moist and healthy for several days.
Lubricants. For the best results, you should find a lubricant for use during intercourse that can be combined with regular, ongoing use of vaginal moisturizers.
Exercises. Try the classic Kegel exercises: Tighten and release the sphincter muscle as you do when you urinate in order to make intercourse easier. If you do Kegel exercises right before intimacy, you fatigue the vaginal muscles, and they are more open.
Vaginal dilators. A sex therapist, like Dr. Carter, can teach you how to use these dilators, which gently stretch the vaginal tissue
The following resources provide more detailed information about overcoming issues with sex and intimacy:
WebMD’s Love, Intimacy, and Breast Cancer
Dating After Breast Cancer: Young Women and Breast Cancer
Network of Strength Intimacy
Breast Cancer.org Sex and Intimacy
Susan G. Komen Sex and Sexuality after breast cancer treatment
The Effect of Breast Cancer Treatments on Sexuality in Premenopausal Female Cancer Survivors
Let's talk about sex - and cancer
For more information on overcoming intimacy issues, go to Breast Cancer Partner’s Resources or you share your success with other survivors at Survivor Tips or start a discussion in our Partner Forum.