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The Sex Talk #2

This is the fourth (and last) article in the “Single and Whole” series, inspired by my interviews with four women who are reclaiming love, sex and themselves after being diagnosed with breast cancer.

“Being a sex symbol is a heavy load to carry, especially when one is tired, hurt and bewildered,” complained Clara Bow, screen siren of the 1920s.

I’m no sex symbol. But as a woman who’s been through breast cancer treatment, I sure in the hell know what it’s like to feel tired, hurt and bewildered! And if that’s not enough to handle, the drugs we take to save our lives can also rob us of sexual satisfaction, during and long after treatment.

So where do we find advice and support for our post-diagnosis sex lives, or lack thereof?

Don’t Call It My Womanhood, Dammit

I worked up the courage to talk to him about it—my vagina, that is—and the annoying sexual side effects of the hormone therapy I take for ER+ breast cancer.

The talk got off to a bad start when he referred to the collective body parts in question as my “womanhood.” He tried to sympathize with me about how hard it must be to “lose” that part of me. Really? If he’d kept talking like that, I was going to lose it! Luckily for both of us he made the predictable suggestion of “lubricant” (had already been there, done that), then changed the subject.

This made me wonder. If my own oncologist (ex-oncologist now) wouldn’t really chat with me about the sexual side effects of anti-cancer medications HE was prescribing, who would?

A few of my bravest friends on social media, that’s who.

I’m Not a Sex Doctor But I Play One on Twitter

Many times every day, across various social media platforms, we turn to our breast cancer peers for solutions to treatment-related problems.

And boy, do we commiserate.

So why don’t we do more of that for the negative effects of cancer treatment on our sexuality? Seems too trivial compared to other side effects, and our looming mortality? Too embarrassing? Are we worried it will make others uncomfortable?

Whatever people’s individual reasons for remaining quiet on the topic, I wish we could find a way to keep having The Sex Talk—to discuss these problems, share solutions, or at least commiserate more openly. Because the sexual side effects of treatment can wreak havoc in our intimate relationships and feed into that harmful narrative of being “less than whole.”

And unfortunately, helping us find strategies to deal with these side effects is a LOW PRIORITY for health researchers, and for many health care providers.

All of which makes me wonder, what would happen if our virtual tribe got a whole lot more talkative about this?

Let’s Come Together

It will be like swapping recipes.

Many of us probably already know that water-based, fragrance-free lubricants are a good choice for our sensitive, chemo-fied skin and olfactory sensitivities. We might even have a favorite to recommend. Some of us might also have checked out special vaginal dilators, tested on cancer patients and survivors, to help lessen sexual discomfort and pain. And we’re all aware (I hope!) that when we’re lucky enough to have the energy to be a little more creative, there’s more than one way to enjoy physical intimacy post-diagnosis.

What we don’t know, however, is how many breast cancer patients and survivors are experiencing exactly what we’re experiencing because they’re not talking about it either.

I Can Barely Type the Phrase “Vaginal Dryness”

I don’t embarrass easily. And I like to think I’m pretty open-minded about sex. But it was hard for me to type that phrase, and even harder to use it with my ex-oncologist.

Because we don’t want to think about… that.

But I’m still going to nudge you to talk openly about that, about any sexual side effects you’re experiencing from cancer treatment—whether it’s your libido, orgasm difficulties and/or vaginal dryness. Find someone in your life who will listen to you and affirm that these very real problems, affecting your quality of life, are important enough to address.

It could be your oncologist (some are more attuned than mine was). A trusted oncology nurse. Your gynecologist. A sex therapist. People in your breast cancer support group. A few of your bravest friends on social media. And of course, don’t forget to include your sexual partner in the conversation.

Bottom line is, I don’t want you to feel silenced about ANY of the negative effects of cancer treatment. Ever! That includes your sexual health.

And here’s an invitation. If you have questions about the sexual side effects of treatment, or have learned something that could help other women deal with these challenges, leave a comment.

Or find me (@barbieslosingit) on Twitter and we’ll talk!

Tags:

  • "Annie Dennison is a breast cancer survivor, meditator and animated listener. Lately she's been putting her PhD in clinical psychology to good use, wrestling with her new inner life since cancer came along. If she weren’t a psychologist she’d probably be a starving artist. Visit Annie on Twitter: @barbieslosingit."

  • Show Comments (4)

  • Judy

    Thank you!

    I have always been a sexual person until er+ made estrogen my enemy,
    I feel depressed and miss my confident spur of the
    moment quickies with my husband.
    It’s not the same anymore.

    • Annie Dennison

      Hi, Judy. You’re welcome! And big apologies for not replying faster.

      I appreciate your openness. And I understand why going from “sexual person” to a sense of “estrogen my enemy” is leaving you feeling depressed. Plus, if you’re on Tamoxifen, one of its side effects can be depression. Hope you and your husband are talking about these changes and not allowing them to get between you too much emotionally? Not that there should be ANY pressure on you to feel and respond exactly the way you did before the side effects. But if you decide you want to figure out ways to keep enjoying sexual expression with him, I wonder if you might use the chemistry you two obviously have to transform those “confident spur of the moment quickies” into a different type of mutually satisfying “slow burn”? It’s not the same, I know. But it could be good in a different way. Want to make sure too that if that sense of being depressed gets serious, you’ll talk to a doc or therapist, okay?

      Annie

  • Pamela

    Thank you for being brave enough to address this. I’m fed up trying to talk to people about it, friends and professionals, and my concerns being brushed over. My poor husband and I have been through hell, cancer brought us closer, but then the intimacy of sex was taken from us when I had a double mastectomy, and take Tamoxifen. Am now on antidepressants too. It plays havoc with our bodies and no one will bloody discuss it. We are working hard between us to try and work things out and we are getting there. It helps I’m on a break from Tamoxifen just now. These things absolutely MUST be discussed and considered important. It’s part of us and an important part of our marriage. I really want to help and support others in the same boat and help people to know that it IS important. I run a support group for women who have had cancer or who are caregivers to someone with cancer and I hope this will be an issue we can support them with.

    • Annie Dennison

      Hi, Pamela. Thank YOU for being determined to make that support group a safe place where women’s post-diagnosis sexual concerns won’t be brushed over (like yours have been!).

      “We are working hard between us to try and work things out and we are getting there.”

      Yes! Not all women post-diagnosis have the energy or interest to “work things out” sexually with partners. I honor that. We’re all in different places with different needs. But for women who DO want to work it out, to find strategies for dealing with the sexual side effects, it’s an ongoing process that requires open communication. Not all partners are open to that. I’m glad yours is.

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