The call came on a perfectly ordinary 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 the sex drought" began. At the time, we'd been married for twenty-four years. As I went through chemotherapy, I lost my hair. I lost my energy. I lost my libido. Sex was the last thing on my mind as I focused all my energy on returning to health.
Gone were the easy, 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 bear the thought of sex, not when I looked as I did, not when I felt so little like the woman I'd been. I cringed from my husband's touch.
After chemotherapy ended, I began taking an estrogen-suppressing drug and had a bilateral mastectomy and reconstruction. When I looked in the mirror for the first time after my surgery, I cried. I was horrified that the breasts I'd loved, that had nursed my children, and that my husband had caressed, were gone — replaced by rigid round expanders. I didn't have nipples or areolas, only red scars across my chest.
My deepest sense of my female identity had disappeared. I avoided my reflection and refused to get dressed in front of my husband. I didn't begin to feel like myself until months later — after I'd had my implant and nipple reconstruction surgery, my areolas had been tattooed in place, and my scars had begun to fade.
Once I grew comfortable with my appearance and could look in the mirror again, I wanted to return to intimacy with my husband. I bought a beautiful lacy nightgown for our first date night in bed.
But rather than our familiar lovemaking, we stumbled around like strangers. My husband wasn't sure if he should caress me like he once had. I reminded him that the implants wouldn't pop, but I had no physical sensation in my breasts.
That personal sexual hotspot was no more. So, we talked for a while and discovered that my upper chest and neck had plenty of sensation, and he could touch those places to give me pleasure
But, intercourse was painful, and it took me forever to have an orgasm — not what I was expecting after months without sex. When I woke up the next morning, my vagina was sore.
Now I was pissed. Breast cancer had physically and emotionally devastated me, and I didn't plan on letting it wreck my sex life, too. I made an appointment to see my gynecologist, who explained that my discomfort was related to the estrogen-suppressing medication I was taking. I was experiencing some of the symptoms of menopause, such as loss of libido and vaginal dryness.
To improve my sexual quality of life, my doctor prescribed a vaginal cream and told me to use plenty of high-quality personal lubricant whenever my husband and I made love. To get in the mood, I often returned 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 several vibrators. In short order, my sex life moved from "Ow!" to "Wow!" Over time, with a lot of patience, love and laughter, my husband and I were able to reignite our flame. Our sex drought was over.
My return to sexual wellness occurred because my husband and I communicated and worked hard at renewing our connection. But during my year of breast cancer treatment, none of my oncology or surgical health care providers ever discussed my sexual health with me.
Approximately 70% of all women treated for breast cancer will have issues with their sex life, according to the Journal of Sexual Medicine. Yet conversations about sex and breast cancer remain rare.
A fellow survivor once told me that survivors have to live in their lives. And a healthy sex life is an essential part of living. I believe having conversations about the effects of breast cancer treatment on sexual health should be a part of every treatment plan. I wish I'd had the forethought to make it part of mine.
If you or a loved one is going through breast cancer treatment, here are some questions to consider asking:
- Should I refrain from sexual activity during treatment?
- Will any of the chemotherapeutic drugs impact me sexually? If so, how?
- Will radiation therapy affect my sex life? If so, how?
- What are the sexual side effects of estrogen-suppressing drugs?
- What are steps that I can take to maintain intimacy with my partner?
- When can I return to sexual activity after breast surgery?
Survivorship is so much more than being cancer-free. I've learned it's possible to have pleasure and intimacy after cancer by being open and honest with my husband. I collaborated with my health care professionals to find solutions that worked for me. Most importantly, I was open to new sexual experiences. I've learned to live in my new life and happily reclaim my "Wow!"
Christine Shields Corrigan is a two-time cancer survivor, wife and mom, and author of Again: Surviving Cancer Twice with Love and Lists, forthcoming on October 24, 2020, from Koehler Books. Chris's lyrical and practical essays about family, illness, writing and resilient survivorship have appeared in a number of literary and popular outlets. https://christineshieldscorrigan.com/