Restoring Intimacy After Breast Cancer: 6 Tips
Cancer can change the way you feel about your body and what feels good to you. But with a combination of self-reflection, physical intervention, communication, and patience, you can restore your intimacy.
After a diagnosis of breast cancer, the last thing you probably think about is sex. Instead, you are likely thinking about your treatment costs, upcoming surgical decisions, the costs of fighting cancer, and how to deal with the side effects of chemotherapy.
For me, painful intercourse, loss of sex drive, and a general struggle with intimacy have been a part of my life both during and after breast cancer. While talking about these issues can be embarrassing or even taboo, I am here to promise you that help is available. You are not alone in these challenges.
Here are six tips for restoring intimacy after a diagnosis of breast cancer.
Cancer treatment affects everyone differently. In my case, my ovarian suppression drugs and long-term hormone blocking therapy had the biggest effects on my sexuality.
Both drugs work to stop ovarian and estrogen production, which can lead to medical menopause. With medical menopause, side effects such as vaginal dryness, painful intercourse and a lack of sex drive occur.
Often times we blame ourselves for challenges related to intimacy and sexuality, but that’s just not fair. It is important to get to the bottom of the challenges to identify resources and interventions that will help restore intimacy and improve our sexual health.
I found it extremely helpful to understand the science behind the hormonal changes going on in my body so that I could shift the blame off of myself on the medication. Once the outside blame was on, I felt more empowered to find solutions.
Many oncologists are not trained to identify or manage the sexual side effects of cancer treatment, but there are amazing communities of survivors and sexual health advocates ready to help. Even if your oncologist is not an expert in the field, he or she can act as a bridge.
You have the power to raise your sexual health and intimacy concerns and to seek support. Yes, it can be embarrassing, but you don’t have to go through this alone. Start by sharing your concerns with your GP or oncologist. Ask for a referral to a gynecological pain or pelvic floor specialist.
I presented my concern to my oncologist shortly after chemotherapy and she was able to refer me to a gynecologist. The specialist addressed my vaginal pain and dryness by recommending the use of dilators, topical lidocaine, lubricant, and daily moisturizer (liquid vitamin E oil is my favorite). I also started using a lube pad before intercourse and it changed my life.
Many breast cancer survivors also find pelvic floor therapy helpful to relieve pain, which can lead to improved intimacy. Some insurance providers cover pelvic floor therapy, so this is a good place to start when looking for a referral. For those in need of more vaginal pain relief, some oncologists may prescribe estrogen creams or recommend laser treatment.
Remember that each individual’s experience is different. They will work with your provider to find resources and interventions that suit your specific physical needs. Physical pain is the first hurdle you have to overcome in rebuilding your intimacy.
Aside from the physical side effects of cancer, your diagnosis and treatment can have a huge impact on your body image. This can then affect your ability to be intimate with your partner or with yourself. Add in the lack of sex drive and the problem can feel insurmountable.
So how do you approach the mental side of healing? It is important to work on restoring your confidence and adding habits of self-love.
I discovered several resources that helped me. The book, “The Mindful Self Compassion Workbook“Kristin Neff, PhD, offers an attentive survey of the SelbstmitgefÃ¼hl and guides you through diary exercises to change your mindset and your thinking to become more compassionate.
I love them too Rosy app to address low sexual desire. The “Thriving Sexually During & After Cancer” module within the app is particularly useful for the survivors and helped me the psychological side unpack healing of my intimacy. I also found the resources were great conversation starter with my husband and even my support team.
It can also be helpful to work with a therapist to find out how cancer has had an impact on your body image and relationships. Working with a one-to-one therapist as well as a couples therapist was a great combination to speed up the healing process.
Your body has changed from cancer. The physical and hormonal changes can alter your wellbeing.
What causes arousal and what makes you feel nourished and safe may now be different. Take some time to get to know yourself anew. This can be through self-exploration, hot yoga, long baths, massages, or anything else that will help you reconnect with your body. It is normal to feel betrayed by your body and angry that cancer has stolen parts of your intimacy.
Take this shift as an opportunity to find new avenues of pleasure, either alone or with a partner. Try things like sex toys, role-playing games, or intimate massages that you may never have tried. If you have lost the feeling of feeling in your nipples as a result of a mastectomy, acknowledge that sadness and then open the door to new ways to find joy.
When we’re hurt, it can be easy to switch off. We avoid being intimate to avoid both physical and emotional pain. But the longer we put it off, the bigger the problem can get physically and within our relationship.
Try to talk to your partner about the challenges you are facing. Ideally, find a time to talk when there is no pressure or expected to be intimate. Even if it may be uncomfortable at first, communication is so important.
Your partner should assist you with managing other side effects. It is no different. Starting with facts can be a great way to open the door to new topics. From there you can slowly get more intimate with the discussion.
As you try new interventions and strategies, communication will help you stay connected with your partner. Try to approach the process through mutual learning. Our partners are healing with us and may not be sure how to help. They may not want to hurt us or are not sure how to deal with changes in our bodies. Discuss this with your partner and it will bring you together.
Not in a relationship? Take time to chat and reflect with yourself. Having an intimate relationship with yourself is extremely important and one you deserve before beginning an intimate relationship with someone else.
You are not cured of your breast cancer treatment overnight, and the restoration of intimacy will not happen overnight either. Show yourself grace as you direct this process.
As you slowly move from reflection to physical interventions and then emotional hurdles, remember that only making a decision to prioritize your sexual health and intimacy will you progress. Show yourself the same kindness you would show to your closest friend.
If you’ve struggled with sex and intimacy after suffering from cancer, you know you are not alone. Don’t give up on yourself. With a combination of reflection, physical intervention, communication, and patience, you can restore intimacy and lead a fulfilling sex life after contracting cancer.
I went that route and still introduce myself to him every day. We are together here and earn more.
Anna Crollman is a style enthusiast, lifestyle blogger, and breast cancer enthusiast. She shares her story and a message of self-love and well-being her blog and social mediawho inspires women around the world to use strength, confidence, and style to thrive in the face of adversity.