There are many ways a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment can impact your sexual life. In anticipation of our new publication, Breast Cancer inFocus: Getting the Care You Need as a Lesbian, Gay or Bisexual Person, Susan DiPronio blogs about navigating sex and dating after breast cancer in the LGBT community.
While we’re dealing with breast cancer and the side effects of treatment, it’s difficult to embrace our sexual needs immediately and long after treatment ends. Our bodies are ragged. We’ve been exhausted for, well, years. Maybe we’ve lost lovers or friends, and for some of us, jobs, careers. For those of us who identify as lesbian or bisexual, we became invisible, almost dissolving into the background of the LGBT community, that social scene where we’re now a stranger invited, but not valued.
When I was going through chemo, a friend came to visit me. She talked about her night out at the bars, sharing her usual brand of entertaining trash-talk. All the while not looking me in the eye, intentionally avoiding my gaze. I was used to it, expected it. My appearance scared me enough that I couldn’t look in a mirror. My friend starts telling me about a woman she was shocked to see out the night before, partying with other women, dancing nonetheless. My friend mentioned that this woman had cancer. She was stunned that the woman would be out. I was stunned that my friend was saying this to me.
Our sexual and emotional desires don’t just end because we’ve had breast cancer. Yet, people shuffle us into another kind of closet, the “cancer closet,” and assume we no longer have an appetite for sex and intimacy.
As survivors, we also put pressure on ourselves when it comes to sex after breast cancer. Breasts are a big part of sex and if they’re gone or scarred, we don’t feel as if anyone would want us and our self-esteem suffers. But sexual desire never disappears. How do we navigate this difficult metamorphosis? Where do we find the support so necessary in rebuilding a positive body image? I’ve decided to become the person I used to be and not be afraid to touch my scars, to embrace sexuality, to look at myself in the mirror.
Luckily for me, during my initial cancer treatment, I had a lover who did not have any issues with my scars, or the drugs, chemo, radiation, the no hair, black nails, mouth sores, and on and on. At one point, I had a side effect, high-grade mucositis, where my body was producing excessive wads of saliva, and it kept dripping out of my mouth, gagging me. If I tried to lie down to rest or sleep, I’d choke. I had to prop myself, sitting up 24/7 and drooling. Not a good look. Yet, she still saw me as a sexual being. Yes, I was lucky to have her in my life, but I’m not going to kid you – I it was difficult to get into it. Even for me, sex positive and with an absolutely knock down gorgeous girl in my bed. It was a real struggle, but I wanted to please her. Sex, is about compromise, even when you have or had cancer.
As things happen, we did break up amicably. But going out again, being available and well – both a gift from her – was beyond challenging. I quickly found out that many of those within the LGBT community did not see me as a possible partner or as desirable as my girlfriend had treated me. Being single, getting out there while dealing with the physical aftermath of breast cancer is not easy for a minute. There was always the question in my mind about should I bring it up before we take our clothes off? If I tell the woman that I’m a survivor will it scare her away or will there be some trepidation on her part in getting involved with me?
I’ve taken risks and moved forward. I’ve pulled away from those who never seem to let go of my history of breast cancer, my scars. With each new lover, it’s either tell or don’t tell all over again. There are always those times when intimacy is inevitable and with each new partner it’s different. To some women I’ve met, my history of breast cancer is divisive and a stigma. To others, it’s a curious morbid kind of draw. Having been in a sexual relationship with someone who cared nothing about my scars, it has been an awakening.
To be sexually active and fighting breast cancer in the LGBT world is really difficult. After this diagnosis and treatment, it’s tough to feel that you’re attractive, desirable and here for the long haul. It’s not easy to allow yourself to feel deserving of being physical and intimate with other women. It takes courage, but it does get easier. I believe that we truly radiate a genuine beauty coming from a place of power where we have looked our mortality in the face and spit back at it. Know this: Your strength is a turn on. Embrace it.
A good sex life is a necessary part of this life – like breathing. I still am and so are you.