The side effects of cancer treatment can make sex much more difficult for patients but oncologists rarely talk about how to fix these problems. Read more to find out how one survivor got past the sexual health roadblocks that she faced.
My husband Joe and I had been married for just two weeks when I started chemotherapy rounds for breast cancer. There was no honeymoon; it was down to the business of getting well. My diagnosis of breast cancer was triple positive, including "estrogen positive" in the mix. As I understood it, this meant that my cancer cells were fed by estrogen. My oncologist sought to remove as much estrogen as possible, thus achieving the best possible outcome. I never realized what a vital part estrogen played in my life until I began treatment.
Within the first chemo round, my body was pushed into menopause. At first I felt relieved that I didn't have to deal with my period when I could barely muster enough energy to shower, get dressed and go to the doctor. However, it didn't take long for menopause to start wreaking havoc on my sex life. Although there were very few moments when I had a desire to have fun in the bedroom, I still had a longing to have that spiritual, physical connection with my husband. I was still a bride for goodness sake! I wanted everything a healthy marriage or other relationship wants. So what was standing in my way?
Once treatment began, I started to feel like less of a woman. I was bald, out of shape from so much bed rest, and I had that alien looking port under my skin. I rarely had a desire to dress up, wear makeup or make myself feel pretty. Joe and I had tried everything to help our sex life. At this point sex was not only painful - it was physically impossible due to vaginal changes.
After multiple rounds of chemo I realized that I felt miles away from my husband. I went to my oncologist for a review of treatments and voiced the problem of sexual intimacy to him. He shrugged it off and changed the subject. I reflected on his reaction after our appointment. I thought perhaps I hadn't been clear enough. I considered that maybe he felt uncomfortable because of our gender difference. I waited for our next appointment where I bluntly asked him again what could be done. He responded that menopause would be temporary and "things" would most likely return to normal after chemo was completed.
I hoped that my oncologist was right and I waited for some semblance of a physical relationship to resume. When my chemo regime was finished and part of radiation therapy was completed, I noted that nothing had changed. I became extremely depressed, anxious and despondent. I knew I had to push harder to get what I needed. I opened up to my radiologist at one appointment and started crying. I elaborated on how I felt ignored by my oncologist when I brought up sexual health. He sent in his nurse and she counseled me on the situation. She brought out a dildo looking object called a vaginal dilator and explained how this could assist in making sex less painful. She reviewed lubrication, etc. My radiologist also prescribed an estrogen vaginal cream. Since the estrogen would not be systemic (only vaginal), it would differ from traditional hormone therapy for which I was not a candidate. I was aware that using this medication was still a risk. However, I determined that it was a risk I could live with.
As I look back on this ordeal, I realize it was one of many ways I had to advocate for myself during treatment and beyond. I felt it was imperative that the physical, emotional, sexual and spiritual facets of my life were in sync. I did not wish to compromise these things just because I was a patient.
Do you have any other tips on how to save your sexuality when dealing with cancer? Share them in the comments below