The call came on a perfectly normal evening. I picked up the phone and my doctor said, “I’m sorry. It’s breast cancer.”
And for me and my husband the “year of sexual drought” began. At that time we were married for twenty-four years. I lost my hair during chemotherapy. I’ve lost my energy. I’ve lost my libido. Sex was the last thing I thought about as I focused all my energy on getting well again.
Gone were the light, early mornings tangled in the sheets, my husband’s hand on my hip, the rise and fall of his chest under my cheek. I couldn’t stand the thought of sex, not when I looked like me, not when I felt any more like the woman I had been. I winced at my husband’s touch.
After finishing chemotherapy, I started taking an estrogen-suppressing drug and had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. The first time I looked in the mirror after my operation, I cried. I was horrified that the breasts that I had loved, that my children had cared for and that my husband had caressed, had disappeared – replaced by rigid round expanders. I didn’t have any nipples or areolas, just red scars on my chest.
My deepest sense of my feminine identity was gone. I avoided my reflection in the mirror and refused to dress in front of my husband. It wasn’t until months later that I began to feel like myself – after undergoing implant and nipple reconstruction, my areolas had been tattooed and my scars were starting to fade.
After I was comfortable with my appearance and able to look in the mirror again, I wanted to return to intimacy with my husband. I bought a beautiful lacy nightgown for our first date in bed.
But instead of our familiar lovemaking, we stumbled around like strangers. My husband wasn’t sure whether to caress me like he once did. I reminded him that the implants would not burst, but I did not have any physical sensation in my breasts.
That personal sexual hotspot was no more. So we talked for a while and found that my upper chest and neck had a lot of feeling and he could touch these areas to give me pleasure
But intercourse was painful and it took me forever to have an orgasm – not what I expected after months without sex. When I woke up the next morning, my vagina was sore.
Now I was mad. Breast cancer had devastated me physically and emotionally, and I had no intention of letting it ruin my sex life as well. I made an appointment with my gynecologist, who explained that my discomfort was related to the estrogen-suppressing drug I was taking. I had some menopausal symptoms, such as loss of libido and vaginal dryness.
To improve my quality of sexual life, my doctor prescribed a vaginal cream for me and told me to use plenty of good quality lubricant whenever my husband and I made love. To get in the mood, I often went back to the memories of my husband’s hands on my breasts.
But the number one thing that helped me get my groove back was an unexpected gift from my husband of multiple vibrators. In a short time my sex life changed from “Ow!” to “Wow!” Over time, my husband and I were able to rekindle our flame with a lot of patience, love and laughter. Our sexual drought was over.
My return to sexual wellbeing came because my husband and I communicated and worked hard to renew our bond. But during my year of breast cancer treatment, none of my oncologists or surgical health care providers ever spoke to me about my sexual health.
According to the Journal of Sexual Medicine, approximately 70% of all women treated for breast cancer have problems with their sex life. However, conversations about sex and breast cancer remain rare.
A fellow survivor once told me that survivors must live in their lives. And a healthy sex life is an essential part of life. I believe discussions about the effects of breast cancer treatment on sexual health should be part of any treatment plan. I wish I had the foresight to make it a part of me.
If you or a loved one is going through breast cancer treatment, ask the following questions:
- Should I refrain from sexual activity during treatment?
- Will any of the chemotherapy drugs affect me sexually? If so, how?
- Will radiation therapy affect my sex life? If so, how?
- What Are the Sexual Side Effects of Estrogen-Depressing Drugs?
- What steps can I take to maintain intimacy with my partner?
- When can I be sexually active again after breast surgery?
Survival is so much more than being cancer free. I learned that it is possible to have joy and intimacy after cancer by being open and honest with my husband. I have worked with my health professionals to find solutions that work for me. Most of all, I was open to new sexual experiences. I’ve learned to live in my new life and happily say my “Wow!”
Christine Shields Corrigan is a two-time cancer survivor, wife and mother, and author of Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists, published October 24, 2020 by Koehler Books. Chris’ lyrical and practical essays on family, illness, writing, and resilient survival have appeared in a number of literary and popular outlets. https://christineshieldscorrigan.com/