Hello Ladies and Germs,
This past week I hopped off to Toronto for a photo shoot. The photo shoot is to be coupled with an article I’ve written for the upcoming (i.e. August) edition of Lives Affected By Cancer magazine. But, before I indulge myself with a blog post all about how fun it is to get dressed up and look pretty . . . I thought it might be high-time to share the source of this article inspiration.
A while back I wrote a post on my other blogging home, Facingcancer.ca, entitled “Sex after cancer – how we coped with the difficulties“ and had a huge reaction on the site. You lovely people here at Bumpyboobs – the original boob, didn’t get to read that article simply because, at that time, my grandmother read this page and I was not keen on exposing her to my lady parts.
However, things have changed and it’s high time this was shared. So here you go, below is my original post about coping with the challenges of sexuality and intimacy. Feel free to comment, share with someone newly diagnosed (so they can brace themselves and know what’s going on – or even better, get prepared!), or just read in silence. Sex is the pink elephant in the room (because it’s blushing so much), but man, it matters hugely. Anyhow, enough stalling. If you are family/friends and are uncomfortable with these past couple paragraphs, then stop reading now and save yourself further anguish. Otherwise, enjoy the ride.
Sex after cancer – how we coped with the difficulties.
You know what I don’t talk about – or at least, what I don’t blog about? Sex. This is partly out of respect for my husband, who was an incredible gentleman during the past year, and partly out of the fact that my grandmother reads each and every entry of my Bumpyboobs.com blog.
However . . .
Grandma doesn’t read this blog. (I never gave her the link, otherwise she’d totally be reading this right now.)
And my husband understands that when talking about recovery and moving on, essentially when talking about life after diagnosis – sex matters. While during treatment it was more than a slightly difficult subject (for reasons I’ll explain below), now we’re in our summer of healing, which includes (te-he) sexual healing.
But I’ll spare you the HBO drama details. No risky scenes of dropped clothing and ferocious passion (Though yesterday after that glass of wine and a night to ourselves, there was, I’ll admit, a copious amount of both – but you know what, it hasn’t come easy. No sir re bob. Not at all. It’s taken heaps of effort to recover from what was, essentially a very difficult year sexually speaking*.) Instead I’ll write you two sections.
1) Ways in which cancer messed up my sex life.
2) Ways in which I took my sex life back.
So, first: Ways in which cancer messed up my sex life.
Often times the solution to cancer is to cut-it-out, meaning often times, the body undergoes a drastic loss. I was lucky, the cancer was in my breast, and as far as invasive surgery goes, so the nurse told me, this was the best cancer to have. (Wohoo?) All I lost was my right breast, many women lose much more.
But nevertheless – it was my right breast. For ages it was difficult to see the scar. I didn’t trust that part of my body. I was terrified of lymphodemia. I wasn’t sure how to dress. I threw away my bikinis. And if my husband’s hand would even hover above the area – swap – I’d swat it away like a fly. No touching. Because touching meant I dipped into instant depression and rumination over cancer, and our lives changing, and the threat, and the treatment, and will anything ever be the same again?
It took a while to recover, and to be honest, I feel like maybe just now I can allow my husband to freely explore that side of my body and not flashback to the chemo or surgery. It’s gotten better, but it’s also taken time.
Exhaustion and Depression.
This is like a game of duck, duck, goose. Exhaustion is walking around the circle of possible reactions, hand above their heads, and we all wonder who she’ll pick – then bam! Exhaustion picks Depression, and Depression is up and running, chasing Exhaustion in a circle – running, running, running – and Exhaustion makes it to the open space, sitting down untouched! So now it’s Depression’s turn to pick a goose . . .duck, duck, duck . . . then guess who he picks since chemo is tomorrow and everything starts again? That’s right: Exhaustion. They’re up and running again.
Well that long winded description was basically to say that I was tired. Dead tired. No matter how many times my husband might have poked me in bed, or kissed me on the neck (when the depression hit hard, I didn’t even understand how he could look at me with that thought on his mind. Ugh. Chemo Catherine wasn’t like your average 28 year old. She looked sick. Sick and bald and sick) . . . my answer was a constant and firm: “No.”
Now this is a tricky topic. Who wants to talk about their vagina (who wants to say vagina?) narrowing. But it happened. Who the heck knows why? Why does chemo narrow a woman’s downstairs passage? Two things happened. First, menopause struck and I dried up like the Sahara. Second, I tightened. Dry and tight. Guess how fun sex becomes when that happens? It was like trying to squeeze your head through a children-sized turtleneck.
The pain was sharp – in fact, it’s still sharp today – seven months post chemotherapy, and every time there is that moment of supreme discomfort . . . only now I know it will pass. Back then I thought it might never stop. That’s a horrible feeling.
So my shop closed up for about five months straight. Also coinciding with some of the most difficult days of our relationship. With the stress of cancer, the difficulties of chemo, the lack of energy and the absence of love making . . . well, it was challenging.
Now for the happier list! Ways in which I took back my sex life.
Actually, I’m no longer in the mood for listing things. I’ll just tell you straight. Firstly, we waited.
Also, once chemo ended, I decided to try some vitamin E. Now doctors can prescribe a variety of things to help the juices flow – there’s even a forum conversation on facingcaner.ca, so do go check that out. But for me, I’d had enough of the lubricants and certainly didn’t want any more drugs. . . so I combined vitamin E with a dilator. And step by step, with a tolerable level of pain, the dilator was expanded over a month or so. Ugh. I cringe at the thought of my grandmother – or anyone’s grandmother – reading about my expanding lady part.
And finally we used the ultimate ingredients: patience and persistence. After five months of no action, even with the dilator helping, things were madly uncomfortable down there. But we tried again and again (with several instances of me saying, “Stop!” because it was really too much), and the discomfort began to last shorter periods of time. Now, here in August, it’s only in the first moments that I feel that pain. . . and I think it’s worth enduring for the fun that comes after.
And that’s where we are today, having fun, thank God, after months of really having to try and persist and work to regain our sex life.
Frankly, I was lucky. Not all partners are able to cope with the intensity of chemotherapy or cancer . . . and I’m guessing none of them initially realized that all ‘fun, slippery times’ will be cleared from the table till recovery starts to happen. I’ve heard of relationships which have crumbled . . . I’ve heard of relationships that have strengthened. Also, I’ve heard of women who had sex all the way through chemotherapy – so good for you are one of them.
And if you are in the middle of a sexual slump, and feeling guilty or frustrated, all I can say is this: hang in there, this isn’t your fault and any good partner will keep that in mind. Let the body react as it needs, and recover at its own pace. Then, when you feel ready talk to your doctor about options. Maybe buy yourself a dilator (with vibration for added blood flow) and get started on the project.
Right – sitting up from the computer – enough sex talk. It’s not even breakfast yet and I still haven’t had my cup of tea. But if you have anything to add, or any advice to give, do take this chance to say something. You never know who you may help. I was certainly scanning the forums when this problem first developed, and it was a relief to learn that other women had similar issues.
Now. Time for tea.
Have a lovely day.
PS. A big thank you to my husband for kindly allowing me to discuss this intimate aspect of our lives. While it is intimate, it’s also so universal. Thanks, babe. You are an incredible man.
PPS. An updated PS here – the response to this article was huge. If you’d like to read some of the insightful and touching comments, scroll to the bottom of this page and learn that you are not alone.