This entry was written by Lillie D. Shockney, RN, BS, MAS, administrative director at Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center and faculty of dept of Surgical Oncology at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine:
Breast cancer remains the most feared disease of all women, regardless of age, race or ethnicity. One of the many fears is the impact breast cancer may have on our sexuality. We are taught at an early age the importance of breasts in society. They represent femininity, womanhood, sexiness, and desirability.
When my daughter was just four years old, I took her to the pediatrician. At night she would awaken, crying and saying her chest hurt. Her nipples were red and hot. The pediatrician asked my daughter, “have you been pulling on your nipples at night?” She nodded. I was stunned. He asked her why. Her response?
“Because I want to have big boobies like my mommy.”
The pediatrician told her to eat lots of green vegetables and soon hers will become bigger than her mommy’s. (To this day I don’t think my daughter understands why she loves broccoli and green beans. So we truly are “trained” at an early age to recognize the importance of breasts.)
So are our sex lives over if we are diagnosed with breast cancer? Definitely not! Actually, you might even find that your sex life ends up being better than it was before.
For a woman undergoing mastectomy without reconstruction, she needs to see herself as transformed. When she looks down in the shower she needs to see that the cancer is gone (not that her breast is gone.) She needs to look at herself as a work in progress. Like a famous painting being created.
The most important factor is communication. You need to initiate the conversation with your partner and talk behind closed doors about what you like, don’t like, what feels good, and what doesn’t. Silence is your enemy.
I was a silent partner for years and then was diagnosed with breast cancer twice. I lost both breasts to this disease two years apart from one another. I was in my 30s. To my surprise, my husband initiated the conversation and told me that he wanted to know what felt good and what didn’t. He wanted to know if I wanted him to touch my mastectomy incisions or not. He also told me that he had read when you lose one of your senses, like sight or smell, the other senses become intensified. He wanted to see if the same thing applied to erotic zones. His hypothesis was correct! So start exploring. You may find g-spots you didn’t know existed before. You may also find that communicating about these intimate details makes it more comfortable to talk about other issues you have kept hidden and been frustrated about.
Of course surgery isn’t the only thing that impacts our sex life. Hormonal therapy and chemo can too. These medications can hurl us into menopause which brings on lower libido, vaginal dryness, depression, insomnia, and hot flashes. Lovely.
Here are some tips: Put a fan in the bedroom. Buy some astroglide. Visit an unmentionable store and buy a few gadgets. There is nothing wrong with procuring a little help. Why not take your partner with you? You are only limited by your willingness and imagination.
How have your relationships been affected by your diagnosis of breast cancer?
We will address this topic at a networking meeting on April 22 called “Behind the Bedroom Door: Sex and Intimacy Uncovered.” Clinical health psychologist Helen Coons, of Women’s Mental Health Associates, will lead this workshop. Visit lbbc.org to register for this free event!