Sex and intimacy after breast cancer

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If you are undergoing breast cancer treament or are a survivor, chances are your sex life may be hampered. But you can turn it around!

Breast cancer can change a lot about your life. From physical changes to your body to the body images that arise from it, and that can even affect your sex life.

While many people don’t talk about sex readily, it is evident that sex and intimacy can take a backseat when undergoing cancer treatment. According to a study by the University of Western Sydney, 70 percent of breast cancer survivors find it difficult to rekindle the physical romance with their partner.

breast cancer
The breast cancer experience slows down your body! Image courtesy: Shutterstock

The results are based on a study of about 1,000 women in Australia who had been diagnosed with invasive breast cancer. The women answered questions about their breast cancer treatment and their sex lives. As many as 82 percent of the women respondents said they had satisfactory sex lives before their diagnosis, but after treatment, they reported a loss of libido and menopausal symptoms like vaginal dryness and painful intercourse.

Dr Urveez Kakalia, Counselling Psychologist, ImPerfect, speaks to HealthShots about coping up with body issues that come along with breast cancer treatments. 

“Breast cancer is one such condition that’s not just physically demanding but also can be emotionally draining. The body changes not just due to the illness itself but surgery, treatment, radiation, medication that the individual has to go through. All these changes in the body, along with the loss of hair due to chemotherapy, reflects in a person’s appearance and the patient starts responding differently to the people around them,” says Kakalia. 

Most oncologists do not prepare their patients for post-cancer treatment sex, and chances are that people may go without being advices about the same. There is inhibition even asking about it.

What are some of the intimacy problems the fighters may face?

There may be primary issues like nausea and pain from the treatment, and at the same time there may be key physical changes. There are other issues that women and their partners may not even know they will face. Many wonder if their sexual life is going to be on a downward slope. The psychological effects of chemotherapy may often result in low sex drive among women patients which is termed completely normal. Many women may stop feeling ‘feminine’ especially after a mastectomy. 

At the same time, many women deal with premature menopausal symptoms and sexual challenges such as vaginal dryness and decreased libido. Single women struggle with a lot of emotional issues trying to find a partner and navigate through their dating life. Retaining intimacy during and after your recovery is critical to your overall health. 

breast cancer
No surprise that you tend to have less sex, for now. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

Dr Kakalia says, “The patients’ perception of their bodies and sexuality may change as a result of the treatment. It is difficult not to let that happen but the patient needs to accept their body as beautiful and not ‘deformed’ even though others may not accept it so willingly.”

Accepting yourself as a worthy human being regardless of external factors should be encouraged. “Practicing this principle of accepting yourself and your body and not rejecting yourself based on the standards of how our bodies should look or a comparison of how our bodies used to look like,” she adds.

Here’s how you and your partner can cope up with with sex and intimacy if you have breast cancer, suggests Dr Kakalia.

1. Lack of desire

Cancer treatment has a different impact on every individual. Cancer drugs shut down ovarian and estrogen production, which can lead to menopausal symptoms like vaginal dryness, loss of sex drive and painful intercourse. Getting out that guilt of lack of desire and putting the blame on external factors like medication and hormones will let you find better solutions to revive your intimacy.

2. Ask for support

While not many oncologists will readily dive into sexual advice but they can always serve as a bridge to help you get closer to your sexual life. You can bring up your intimacy concerns and ask for support. You can contact a pelvic floor specialist for treatment of the pain during intercourse. Your oncologist might also refer you to a gynaecological expert who can address your concerns and recommend the use of lube, dilators or even lubricating gel inserts right before getting into the act.

breast cancer
The power of love can truly help breast cancer fighters heal in adversity. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock

3. Address the mental side of healing

Breast cancer patients are often scared even with the thought of getting naked in front of their partner. This affects the ability to be intimate with their partner or themselves. Cancer survivors need assistance and time to accept the changes in their bodies. Rebuilding confidence and including acts of self-love in your daily life is necessary to evoke a sense of sexuality in you. To accelerate the healing process, a healthy dialogue with your partner and turning to individual or couple therapy can help untangle the jumbled wires of sexuality between you and your partner.

4. Stay patient

The treatment took you time till you got cancer-free. Similarly, rebuilding intimacy won’t happen overnight. Cut yourself some slack and show some grace to your partner as well.

5. Talk it out

Communication is the absolute key. Telling your partner about the challenges you face is a step ahead. Partners avoid getting intimate to avoid mental and physical pain. Talking it through at a time when sex is not on your mind may bring you better solutions. The intervention of some sort may prove beneficial as well. Communicate with your partner about the sexual positions or products that might ease the intimacy and bring you back in tune with your bodies.

6. Don’t give up on yourself

If you’re dealing with low sex drive and other dark symptoms that cancer gave you, know that you’re not alone. Do not give up on yourself. You can join a group of cancer survivors online and learn from their experiences. Remember, patience, communication, medical assistance and self-love can help you live a sexually fulfilled life after cancer.

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