The Challenges Of Sex After Cancer

Photographed by Rockie Nolan.
When I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I was in a long-term, committed relationship. Things had been rocky, and my life-altering diagnosis didn’t make them easier. I survived the cancer. My relationship did not.
During the two-plus years that I was undergoing treatment and reconstruction, I wasn’t having sex. I mean, who feels sexy when you are having your breasts removed and poisonous toxins flushed through your veins? There was a period of six months where I lived without nipples until I got them tattooed on. Looking at my body in the mirror was torture, so I certainly didn’t want anyone else seeing me naked. The thought of sex? It didn’t even cross my mind.
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At some point, I decided I should get back on the dating scene. I wasn’t looking for anything serious. I just needed the practice. Plus, I like to flirt and socialize. I really didn’t think it would get beyond a few fun dinners.
A few months later I met a guy I liked (who is now my fiancé), and eventually things got serious. It was only after we finally got intimate that I discovered something shocking. Unbeknownst to me, because of my cancer-imposed sexual hiatus, things downstairs were radically different than before I got sick. When I started having sex again, I discovered my vagina was drier than the Sahara desert and it was really tough to have an orgasm. Trust me when I say it took a lot of work. I later learned from Dr. Lauren Streicher, a women’s health expert, that I wasn’t unique. A lot of female cancer patients experience some form of sexual dysfunction. And I was completely caught off guard because not one of my doctors – and I had a team of them – told me to expect this kind of thing.
Once again I felt completely betrayed by my body. Not only was I shocked and frustrated by my own inability to perform, but I was beyond mortified trying to explain it to my new lover. I was turned on, so I didn’t understand why my body wasn’t responding. To add insult to injury, my cancer medication, Tamoxifen, put me into “chemopause,” chemically-induced menopause. So, in addition to my vaginal problems, I also started experiencing terrible night sweats. I would wake up in the middle of the night, drenched in sweat. The sweat was so next-level, I would have to get up to change the sheets and my PJs. Now, this is one thing when you are sleeping alone. It’s a whole other embarrassing nightmare when you have a new boyfriend lying next to you.
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Luckily for me, my guy is cool and compassionate. He used humor and kindness to distract from, and minimize, my embarrassment. Regardless, I felt cancer had stolen my identity of a woman. I secretly wondered — and worried — if I would ever feel sexy again.
I’m a girl who won’t take no for an answer. So, I certainly wasn’t going to let a dry vagina and some night sweats dull my shine. I started researching and interviewing experts on the topic of sexual health after cancer. I dedicated a chapter to it in my book, Pretty Sick: The Beauty guide for Women with Cancer. Dr. Streicher offered some key pieces of advice to women in my situation. Her first tip was: “use it or lose it.” She explained that vaginal muscles are just like other muscles in our body. They require exercise to stay strong and to function properly. Having intercourse (and masturbating) regularly – keeps everything in working order. She also suggested using Replens vaginal moisturizer, which helps keep the internal tissue hydrated and soft. And she shared how some laser treatments might help my vagina become more lubricated. I tried them, and they worked for me, although this past July, the FDA released a warning against the use of energy-based devices for vaginal rejuvenation procedures.
The crux of the matter is that being a cancer survivor comes with it’s own, often unexpected, quality-of-life issues. For some, there are simple solutions. For others, they aren’t. I just wish I had been given a heads-up about the physical obstacles I was going to face. Then, I could have been prepared. It’s one of the reasons why I share my story – to help other women who are about to travel the same bumpy road. The fact is, the more you know, the better equipped you are to handle the shit-storm of side effects. It’s also one of the reasons why I felt passionate about helping organize a cancer wellness expo. It’s a daylong conference where even the most provocative topics that (uniquely) affect the lives of women with cancer — such as dry vaginas, nipple tattoos and cannabis as medication — can be discussed freely and without judgment. The Cancer Wellness Expo, its official name, is a day about empowerment — with some fun pampering activities packed in the mix — something every cancer patient and survivor could use.
Today, my girly bits are better than ever. But it took time, money and a lot of practice to get her back in working order. It was a fight after the battle – and I won them both. I guess that makes me a true cancer warrior.
The Cancer Wellness Expo is being held on Saturday, Sept. 29th at Urban Zen, 711 Greenwich St., NYC. Register here.
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