Maria looked in the mirror and was troubled by what she saw.
She knew it would take time for things to get back to normal after treatment for breast cancer. But sometimes, she thought life would never be normal again. The image that stared back at her looked exhausted. Her face was chubbier than it used to be. Her hair, which used to be long and flowing, was starting to come back in uneven patches.
She was thirty-two years old and wondered what was next for her life. Her family and friends had told her how brave she was during treatment. But she didn’t feel so brave right now. She was grateful to have this second chance, but wasn’t sure how to go about getting what she wanted.
What she wanted was a relationship and maybe, down the road, a family. But the thought of dating again, especially now, terrified her. Would men still find her attractive? Would they want to date a woman who had been treated for cancer? Would they be turned off when they realized she had only one breast? Would they stick around if she decided to have reconstructive surgery – or even worse – if the cancer came back?
And what about sex? How would that change? Would it hurt? Would she even feel like having sex again?
Maria’s concerns are common. Cancer can have huge implications for sex and relationships, from body image issues to sexual function. And healthcare providers don’t always talk about it.
It can get complicated when you don’t have a partner, too. People in long-term relationships know each other well and support each other. But what if you’re starting from scratch?
Today we’ll look at some of these concerns.
Women, Cancer, and Sex
Cancer and cancer treatment can take a toll on women’s sexuality. Hormonal changes may lead to vaginal dryness, tightness, pain, and a diminished libido. Surgical treatment may change some genital anatomy.
The emotional impact of cancer can also affect sexuality. Many women struggle with body image, especially if they’ve lost a limb or a breast. Some gain weight or have surgical scars.
If you have questions about how your specific cancer or cancer treatment might affect your sex life, be sure to speak to your doctor. Having cancer doesn’t stop you from being a sexual person. Your doctor can tell you when it’s okay to start having sex again and let you know of any precautions or adjustments you may need to make. For example, you may need to use a lubricant to take care of vaginal dryness. Or, you might need to try different positions to make intercourse more comfortable.
Learning more about sex and your personal situation can help you prepare for anything unexpected.
Your doctor can also refer you to counseling or a support group if you need one. It’s normal to feel apprehensive about starting relationships again. A therapist and support group can help you rebuild your confidence.
When should a woman reveal to a new partner that she’s had cancer? The answer is a personal one with no right answer. You might decide to tell your new partner early in the relationship. Or, you might wait until you know the person better and have developed a level of trust.
Either way, you should be prepared. Try having a friend role play the conversation with you. Practice different scenarios, from a completely accepting partner to one who is more skittish. Think about how you’ll feel and respond. Be ready to answer any questions that arise.
Unfortunately, rejection does happen sometimes. Some potential partners just can’t handle being with someone who has had cancer. It’s easier said than done, but try to remain positive. Don’t let fear of rejection keep you from dating.
Remember Your Strengths
As you transition into dating again, stay connected to your friends and family. Go out and have fun. Don’t be afraid to try new things. Take a class on a subject that interests you or volunteer for a cause you support. You might meet a new partner this way. But even if you don’t, you’ll be with people who make you feel good about yourself. That confidence will go a long way when you start a new relationship.
The American Cancer Society makes this recommendation:
You can form a more positive view of yourself when you get objective feedback about your strengths from others. Make a list of your good qualities as a mate. What do you like about your looks? What are your good points? What are your special talents and skills? What can you give your partner in a relationship? What makes you a good sex partner? Whenever you catch yourself using cancer as an excuse not to meet new people or date, remind yourself of your assets.
Remember, the right partner will want to be with you no matter what. He or she will value who you are regardless of any sexual challenges or bodily changes.
American Cancer Society
“The single woman and cancer”
(Last revised: February 25, 2013)
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(July 3, 2013)
Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center