Your sexual health following cancer treatment can be a very personal matter and may be challenging to address. From body insecurities to fears, such as not feeling feminine or attractive, many women see sex as a taboo topic and something they fear discussing.
And that’s something Professor Kate White from Sydney University’s Cancer Nursing Research Unit wants to change.
“I think sexual health is one of the most neglected areas when it comes to cancer care,” she explains. “And as a community, we don’t talk about this enough; let’s see if we can unhide this topic and start to discuss it.”
Refocusing your attention
Professor White says intimacy is an important part of life and a valuable key to maintaining a strong bond with your partner or building new relationships. This alone makes it worth addressing even before the end of cancer treatment to get you feeling comfortable enough to be intimate and also identifying any barriers that may have developed along the road of cancer treatment.
“I want to emphasize that being a sexual being is absolutely integral to who we are,” she says. “When it comes to sexuality and intimacy, it is about much more than sexual intercourse, of course, but you can’t ignore the sexual intercourse bit because it talks to our relationships, and the aspect of that intimacy that we’re missing.”
However, Dr White admits that a cancer diagnosis can put a strain on the whole situation.
“Cancer patients may feel differently about who they are,“ says Professor White. “A cancer diagnosis changes the way we feel about ourselves, yet the challenge for partners is they don’t feel differently about you.”
She adds that partners might think that as you no longer have breast cancer or are no receiving treatment everything will go back to ‘normal’.
“They’re often frightened of doing the wrong thing or making a situation worse,” she says. “And if you haven’t been able to maintain that intimate aspect of your relationship [during treatment] then all of these bits get a bit bumpy along the way, and it becomes harder and harder.”
Accepting physical changes
It can be especially challenging, says Professor White, if you’ve had surgery across your chest, as you may find that what used to be pleasurable is no longer so. It might feel irritating or almost painful because the sensations have changed.
“This doesn’t mean you can’t experience pleasure,” she explains, “it’s all about understanding that there has been a physical change and understanding how it feels now. I’ve had several women tell me their chest feels like a brick, like a lump of wood. It doesn’t feel like it’s part of them anymore.”
That why, says Professor White, it’s really important to think and talk about your experiences with your partner, your breast nurse, a female GP or a women’s health nurse.
“One of the things we have found when talking to women going through breast cancer treatment is they often use strategies to separate their head from their body when they’re going through physical changes. So, you’ve got to reenvisage and reengage with that. This is your body. You’ve got to feel secure in it.”
Creating a safe space
Aside from the physical act, Professor White says that women need to feel emotionally safe in themselves and their relationship as well.
“One of the things about all of this is that patients often find themselves feeling incredibly vulnerable, “ she explains. “So it’s important to think about what it is that you want to broach with your partner, what you want to come out of the conversation and what you think would be important to actually making that conversation happen in a safe way.”
It’s important to remind yourself how much they love you, and how much you love them, and understand that they might not be the best with words and explaining themselves. You might actually have to help find the right words for them.
Timing is everything
While it isn’t recommended to be intimate within a few weeks of surgery, Professor White says it is safe to resume intercourse once you’ve had the all-clear from your team of doctors.
However, the length of time between surgery and being given the all-clear is dependent upon the type of cancer you have and the resulting surgery. A few questions to ask your treatment team is what exactly was done, how does this change my anatomy and how will this affect my ability to enjoy sexual intercourse and other forms of intimacy?
Seeking extra help
Sexual health counselling is also an excellent option and creates a safe space for you and your partner to connect with an expert, who specialises in this area. Speaking to a professional can help create an opportunity to discuss concerns and provide support for you as you return to a more intimate relationship with your partner.
Professor White also adds the key ingredient to a successful sexual relationship following ovarian or breast cancer treatment comes with time, patience and being willing to have an open dialogue with your partner and your medical team.
If you are looking for further information, check out our recent webinar with Professor Kate White who discusses ways to reintroduce intimacy following cancer.
Thank you for visiting Pink Hope! Keep reading our blog for more articles about breast and ovarian cancer, and find out how to volunteer, support or donate to Pink Hope in the future. Pink Hope is a preventative health hub providing essential tools for assessing, managing and reducing your risk of breast and ovarian cancer, as well as providing personalised support for at-risk women.
This article was sponsored by Astra Zeneca and developed independently by the team at Pink Hope in consultation with medical experts.