Beverly McKee MSW, LCSW

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Intimacy after Breast Cancer: Breaking the Silence

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Finding a “new normal” after breast cancer is not easy, but most of us are completely unprepared for the challenges of intimacy after a breast cancer diagnosis. 

Fears of rejection, insecurity about our body image and physical pain make us want to put on our granny panties and hide under the blankets from our partner.  Add in the changes in hormones:  early menopause from chemotherapy, hormone therapy or a hysterectomy and any memory of a lascivious libido becomes a distant memory.  

 

There is HOPE...even for those who have the libido of a wooden table. 

 

Sadly, this is a subject that is rarely discussed due to its personal nature.  In an attempt to break the silence, I asked my fellow breast cancer survivors throughout the world about their experiences with intimacy after breast cancer. 

They shared similar stories about their struggles and were desperate for answers.  You will find their quotes throughout this article, left anonymous for the sake of privacy.

Some women suffer in silence while others have hit resistance when asking their doctors for help. 

cancer patient not alone.purchased

We need to remember that oncologists are in the business of saving our lives by extinguishing cancer.  Most of us will be eternally grateful to thier oncology teams for stomping out cancer, but few doctors mention that our love lives might be impacted by our diagnosis and treatment.  Determined to learn more, I sought out an expert in the field.

Tamara Williams-Reding, M.Ed, is a licensed professional counselor specializing in psycho-oncology.  She works in an oncology office with a variety of cancer patients.  A breast cancer survivor herself, she began to research intimacy after breast cancer following her own struggles.  

“Breast cancer had taken so much from me.  I refused to let it take away my sex life with my husband.  I knew that I wasn’t alone in this struggle after talking to other survivors in my practice.  I began speaking to groups about this subject so that other survivors know that they are not alone and to offer solutions to women who are struggling.”  
Learn more about Williams-Reding by visiting her website: twmreding.com
 
Body Image
 
First let’s first examine WHY breast cancer survivors often find themselves feigning a headache when our partner gives us that smoldering look of desire: 
 
Breasts are often portrayed as an essential part of sexuality.  Many women feel injured and sexually traumatized after multiple surgeries and the poking and prodding that is inevitably a part of breast cancer treatment.  Our bodies are different and it takes time to accept these changes. 

A3  “I will never forget meeting with my plastic surgeon to discuss reconstruction.  My husband was nervously chattering incessantly about nothing as I stood in front of my plastic surgeon, my paper gown open as the doctor measured and touched my breasts. I felt disconnected from the part of my body that had once brought so much desire.”

 
 
Hormonal Changes
 
It is imperative to understand the significant impact of hormone imbalance on our sexuality.  The estrogen and progesterone that feed many types of breast cancer also serves the purpose of maintaining a sexual balance.Menopause brought on by chemotherapy, hormone therapy or a hysterectomy after breast cancer can result in a variety of symptoms including low sex drive, vaginal dryness, painful sex, valvular changes, decreased libido and difficulty reaching orgasm.

sad woman on beach

“Sex doesn’t feel the same for me.  My implants create a facade of a ‘normal’ body but a bilateral mastectomy in conjunction with a hysterectomy has annihilated my desire for intimacy. I never thought that this would be my biggest challenge after a breast cancer diagnosis.”  
 
 
 
 
 
Feeling Disconnected
 
Women often push their partner away out of fear, causing distance and feelings of rejection.  Their partners begin to dread rejection so they stop asking for intimacy, resulting in a vicious cycle of abandonment and loneliness for both the survivor and their partner.
 
“I feel like a stranger in my own body.  My scarred breasts are numb and I miss my nipples.  They were such an amazing part of foreplay and now they are gone forever. I’m not sure how to get past these feelings of loss.”
 
Fear
A5  “To be very honest, I was terrified to be intimate with my husband after treatment for breast  cancer and a hysterectomy.  I felt like a bride on her wedding day, afraid of the unknown. 
 What if my body didn’t respond physically?
Would intercourse be painful? 
Would my husband feel  the same way about me?“
 
 
 
Fatigue
 

Ask any breast cancer survivor and they will tell you that treatment is exhausting.  Surgery, chemotherapy, radiation and long term hormone therapy can cause both physical and mental fatigue that extends well beyond the last day of treatment.  High expectations of bouncing back to normal after treatment in addition to balancing the overwhelming duties of life in general can result in a bedtime well before the end of the nightly news.

“I’m exhausted from the long haul of treatment and trying to find a new normal.  My husband gives me ‘the look’ and I have to restrain myself from slapping him. Doesn’t he understand what I’ve been through?  Sex is the last thing on my mind but I’m also afraid to say no too often for fear that it will drive us apart.”

Before you buy stock in flannel nighties, take heart, my fellow breast cancer survivors.  There is HOPE for those who want to maintain a healthy sex life after breast cancer.

A6

It is vital to have an open conversation with your partner to discuss the fact that your sex life will be different after breast cancer.

Too shy to broach the subject?

Print this article and leave it on their pillow.  Read on to learn how to rekindle the romance in your life.

 
 Start Slow
 
Our bodies are scarred, uncomfortable and traumatized after breast cancer treatment.  Ask your partner to be protective of the most vulnerable parts of your body and let you take the lead.  Remember that your partner loves you and wants to be close to you. 

A10

Some women find comfort in wearing a camisole to hide the scars or creating a “no-touch” zone.  Remember that intimacy does not always have to lead to sex in the beginning.
 
 
 
 
Make Time to Relax
 
A8

 

The fight or flight mode is essential when going through a crisis.  It can help us survive in life or death situations but it can be difficult to turn off this way of processing information after a trauma such as breast cancer.

If our brain is hyper focused on survival, it will not have room for feelings of intimacy. 

Make time to relax, whether through meditation, yoga or exercise.  This will allow your brain to refocus on the present moment.
 
 
Be Patient
 
Be patient with yourself and your partner.  Remember that intimacy changes throughout life for many reasons and does not always mean intercourse.  Learn to enjoy one another on a whole new level.  
 
Take Steps to Awaken Your Libido
We have always been told that intimacy begins in the brain which suggests that we need to be “in the mood” mentally before warming up physically.  Williams-Reding informed me that new research points to the idea that we can jump start our libido with physical stimulation. A11

Embrace this journey as a way of learning more about your needs through experimentation with mental stimulation (romance novels or provocative movies) and physical stimulation (self massage). 

Williams-Reding recommends visiting www.a-womans-touch.com to learn more about self massage, lubricant options and restoring vaginal health.
 
 
Practice, Practice, Practice
 

It seems so cliché, but schedule sex with your partner.  Spend time throughout the day flirting with one another and mentally preparing for intimacy.  Re-frame this challenge as a new honeymoon, learning new things about each other and experimenting with new techniques. 

 
Stay Healthy
 
The proper diet and regular exercise is vital to intimacy in general. Talk to your doctor about the best diet and exercise plan after your diagnosis or visit a nutritionist.  
A13

Breast cancer can take many things from us but it cannot take away our ability to love and connect with our significant other.  You are now armed with a new arsenal of tools to use in your quest to overcome problems with intimacy after breast cancer

It’s time to pack away the granny panties and flannel pajamas.  Light some candles, crank up the music and let the fun begin!

Article by Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW
Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW is an author and inspirational speaker.  After surviving a Stage III breast cancer diagnosis, she dedicated her life to creating HOPE for breast cancer survivors throughout the world with her website, blogs, social media outlets and speaking engagements.  Learn more at www.navigating.org
© Copyright 2013-2016  Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW.   All Rights Reserved.
 

Looking for HOPE and inspiration for life after breast cancer? Check out our new release, Celebrating Life Decades after Breast Cancer. 

Imagine the hope and comfort you will feel surrounded by forty inspiring breast cancer survivors as they share stories of celebrating life twenty, forty, even FIFTY years after diagnosis. 

This book will help quiet fear, calm anxiety and offer the priceless gift of hope.  The author, Beverly McKee, MSW, LCSW is a licensed mental health therapist and Stage III breast cancer survivor. She was inspired to compile this powerful collection of stories after planning a party set for October 17, 2052, exactly forty years in the future from the date of her own diagnosis.

You are invited to meet these unforgettable women during a worldwide book tour! For details and to learn how you can join an exclusive online book club, click here!

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