Sex and Cancer: Are They Mutually Exclusive?

Cancer changes all aspects of a person’s life. Some people aren’t prepared for what it can do to their relationships – specifically, their sex lives. We talked to some women about how their sex lives changed due to breast cancer and how they addressed it.

“My sex life changed very negatively,” Danielle (name changed to protect privacy) told us. “I was in a relationship with a guy who continually forced himself on me, even hours after chemo treatments. I haven’t had any natural lubrication (since chemo) so the sex was not only forced and uncomfortable but very painful. Didn’t seem to bother him that I was grimacing and saying ow, stop. Thankfully he’s out of my life now. My next attempt was with an ex who was very focused on me wearing a wig and made a grab at my cancer boob. Needless to say, I have zero sex drive and am so fragile from these experiences I pull away from anything relating to sexuality. I’m still shell shocked from those experiences.”

If you are in a situation where your partner is forcing themselves on you, you are being abused. Please speak to a trusted friend or a doctor if you need help getting out. No one should ever be in a situation where their partner is forcing themselves on them, but it’s particularly horrible to be dealing with abuse when you’re trying to stay alive.

Fortunately, we spoke with many women whose experiences were not traumatic, but who still had to navigate their sex lives in new ways. Here are some things we heard from women.

“Before cancer we had sex easily 4-5 times a week. Now I’m too weak and tired to do anything right after treatment. When I’m feeling better my husband is still afraid to touch me. He’s terrified of hurting me.”

“I asked if it was the hair loss and he said “maybe.” I think it’s a constant reminder of the disease. I wore a wig around the house and he hated it. We have had intercourse a couple of times and only 50% of those times were to anyone’s satisfaction.”

“He’s worried about me. He’s the kindest soul so I know this is temporary. We are excited about the no more periods part once this is over. We will make up for lost time later. In the meantime, if he needs 15 minutes to himself he’s more than welcome to it.”

Part of the problem women face is dryness due to chemotherapy.  Chemo stops the production of estrogen, which can lead to vaginal dryness and vaginal atrophy (the thinning of the vagina), which can make sex uncomfortable at best, and more often than not, painful. Coconut oil is recommended as a lubricant because of its natural ingredients. Some women try topical estrogen cream, but this is not recommended for women who have hormone related cancers. Be sure to talk to your doctor about what could work for you.

What if you were single when you were diagnosed? How does that affect your dating life? One woman told us, “I’m not in a relationship and honestly can’t imagine entering into one now. Sometimes I feel like an imposter because I only have one real boob. I’m not ashamed of the fact, or even embarrassed of it, but being intimate would feel too vulnerable. Also, my emotions are everywhere and I don’t think I’d be bringing much to a relationship right now.”

Some women expressed frustration with their partners. Some said their spouses felt personally rejected, and would complain to them about being ignored. This infuriated the patients, who felt pressured to engage in sex when they were exhausted, emotionally fragile, and suffering from both lack of desire and the painful side effects of treatment.

A few women had this to say for people going through that situation. “If you find yourself in a situation where you have no interest in sex and your partner is pushing for it, there are a few things to take into consideration. Is your partner usually self centered and demanding? Or are they usually supportive and caring? If they are normally supportive, they are probably trying to be open about their feelings and are turning into you instead of turning away from you. You should never feel forced into sex – ever. It is important to remember, through, that cancer isn’t only affecting you. Your partner is going through it with you.” It might be wise for you both to meet with your doctor to discuss options. Several women talked about various pills and remedies their medical team recommended that returned their desire and helped them have a fulfilling sex life again, which was good for them as well as their partners. Couples therapy could be useful as well. Cancer is a huge issue in a relationship, and even the happiest couples could probably stand some professional help while they are going through it.

If, however, you are not being listened to by your partner, speaking with your doctor or seeing a therapist could still be helpful. You need to be comfortable setting boundaries, and your partner needs to be on board. Don’t assume they aren’t suffering, but also don’t allow them to bully you into sex when it is painful or when you just don’t have the energy or desire.

And if you were recently diagnosed, know that not everyone has the same experience. Several women told us their stories about how wonderful their partners have been, and how in some cases they felt their sex life improved.

“I had very early stage breast cancer. Call it vain but this surgery has improved my body image and helped me feel sexier.  I’m only 10 weeks post so I don’t know if this will change. Sex is more frequent and better than ever.”

“We had sex about two times a week before my mastectomy last August. Since last August we have had sex two times. Unlike so many women my husband has been phenomenal.”

“At one point I said “I bet you never thought you would be married to a one boobed bald lady,” and he replied with, “I’m married to the same woman I have been married to for the past 17 years.”

Our next article will go into more detail about how to get help for sexual issues due to cancer treatments.

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