There was a time before pink ribbons. There were no marathons. October was all about jack-o-lanterns and ghosts. Breast cancer, or any type of cancer for that matter, was not something that was openly discussed. Or mentioned. There was something shameful about cancer. As recently as the mid-1900s, people spoke about cancer in whispers and allowed relatives to die in attics rather than let anyone know they had cancer.
Obviously, times have changed. Awareness campaigns have brought this once hidden disease front and center. The entire month of October is dedicated to breast cancer awareness, and the world is seemingly awash in pink. In fact, there is a chart depicting the colors for all of the different types of cancer. The vast majority of people have either experienced a bout with cancer or know someone who has. It is still a dreaded disease, but it no longer carries a stigma of shame.
Except, sometimes it still does. Men have sexual and intimacy issues related to certain types of cancers and women have their own list. Breast cancer is, perhaps the one that affects women the most, if for no other reason than it is so wide-spread. Statistically, 1 out of 8 women will be diagnosed with breast cancer sometime during her life. The survival rate gets better all the time but sexual side effects can take their toll long after treatment is over. According to the National Cancer Institute, 50% of women who undergo treatment for breast cancer experience long-term sexual dysfunction.
According to Susan R. Davis, MD, of Victoria, Australia’s Monash University Medical School, “Sexual problems are among the most common and least talked about side effects of breast cancer treatment. About 70% of the women in our study were experiencing a meaningful loss of desire and sexual function a full two years after diagnosis.”
Body image, vaginal dryness and uncertainty about what to expect can play large roles. So, can having premature menopause be brought on by chemotherapy. It can be temporary that lasts during and for a period of time following treatment or it can be permanent. The ovaries stop functioning, and hormone levels plummet over a period of weeks or months rather than over a few years as it does when it happens naturally. Menopause is rarely pleasant, but the suddenness of it happening prematurely can significantly intensify symptoms for younger, premenopausal women.
Fortunately, the news isn’t all bad! Breast cancer may initially put a halt to all thoughts and desires for sex and intimacy but things do not have to stay that way. A lot of women are uncertain or even afraid to have sex. Their partners may also be hesitant for fear of hurting them or being perceived as pushing something to quickly. If this goes on for very long, professional counseling should be considered. For many others, there are some simple ways to move past this roadblock that have proven effective. Some suggestions are:
Vaginal moisturizers – unlike lubricants, which are used during sex, these are absorbed to introduce moisture back into the vaginal area for a period of several days
Lubricants – in addition to the vaginal moisturizers, if there is still a painful sensation during intercourse, lubricants can help
Exercises – Kegel exercises, focusing on tightening and releasing the sphincter muscle, can improve intercourse
If you are experiencing some level of sexual dysfunction during your struggle with breast cancer, know that you aren’t alone. Talk to your doctor. Get a referral for counseling. Talk with your partner and trusted friends. Don’t be silent.