My vagina has been trying to kill me for years. That is how I feel, anyway. My cancer started out growing on my cervix, so mentally it is hard to stay outside of my own head during sex. It is hard to not think about this thing inside me which continues to attempt to kill me, and the fact that it all started out right there! It makes it hard to stay in the moment.
When I get asked the question “Can cancer and sex go together?” my answer starts out in a way you might not imagine. We actually caught my cancer because I was having sex. One of the symptoms of cervical cancer is abnormal bleeding with intercourse. My husband, then my boyfriend, asked about the bleeding as it became increasingly worse.
I remember the last time we had sex before my diagnosis. It wasn’t because it was the most amazing night of my life or anything dreamy like that; I remember it because we were away at a conference and staying in a hotel. We had sex and afterward it looked like a graphic murder scene. I can only imagine what the hotel staff must have thought about when they came in to clean the room the next day.
My spouse said, “That’s it, no more sex until you get checked out and see what is going on.” The threat of no sex actually pushed me towards seeing my doctor and directly led to getting my diagnosis of cervical cancer in October 2012. It felt like the world was crashing in around me. I never even considered how it might impact my sex life, I just wanted to get the cancer out!
Has your doctor ever talked to you about sex and cancer? I would guess not. It’s time to take a look at sex and cancer in a few ways. Let’s break it down by stages of the cancer story:
Your sex life could change, even before diagnosis. Sometimes sex can trigger symptoms of your cancer, such as bleeding with intercourse. Sometimes cancer causes your hormones to get crazy. You might not feel like having sex or you may go the opposite way and want sex all the time. It is hard to say and it varies person to person. One might also find that your sexual abilities are not impacted at all, while another person might find that those body parts just doesn’t want to work. Once you have a diagnosis you will have the mental aspect to cope with as well, and this too can have an impact on your sex life. Bottom line: your sex life might begin to change before you even enter treatment.
Sex and treatment? This is an entirely different ballgame. The wide variety of treatments available in cancer can have an even wider range of impacts sexually. You could find yourself with extreme nausea and fatigue, with sex being the furthest thing from your mind. You could find yourself in a treatment or have a surgical procedure that will put you on restrictions as to how long you have to wait to have sex.
Personally, I had multiple surgeries and each one seemed to extend the amount of time before sex was even an option. After surgery often comes more treatment, sometimes chemo and/or radiation. I know during radiation I was able to have sex. I remember a particularly entertaining time at my radiation oncologist when my husband thought he should ask the doctor if it was okay to have sex. My doctor replied, “I’m all for sex, no problem there.” My husband joked that he was worried he would come out like a glow worm. As uncomfortable as it might be, take the time and ask your doctor if you are unsure if you are fit for sexual activity based on your treatment plan.
And let’s not forget about menopause. That’s right-- menopause can be a side effect of cancer treatment. This is a beast all in its own. Vaginal dryness, hormones gone wild, loss of desire. All of these are pieces that you have to overcome if you want to have a fulfilling sex life again.
I have to be honest here, I haven’t made it into the remission stage for any long period of time and I am living my life with cancer, so I am going on what I hear from my cancer friends. It. Gets. Better. It might not be today, it might not be next year, but sex after cancer gets better. Things might be different. They might not ever be the same. You might need lubricant. You might not be able to be as spontaneous as you once were. You might not be able to have sex in all the same ways and you know what, you might not even be able to have a sex life that even resembles a “typical sex life.” That is okay. Find your groove.
I asked a friend about sex and cancer and she said she is all for it, but immediately realized that maybe she should be talking to her doctor about it. She had recently been notified that her blood work indicated her counts were low (neutropenia), and she realized she could be putting herself at further risk--risk she didn’t even think of.
Cancer means you have to worry about things you never thought you’d have to worry about. Sex shouldn’t have to be one of them, but it is. I hope that throughout your cancer story you find your groove and keep it! I hope that sex doesn’t become difficult. However, be prepared because you need to make some adjustments along the way. Sex can change due to cancer, and that is okay. Physically your body will be different after treatments. You might look different, you might have scars, you might have numbness, and you will definitely feel different.
Don’t try to be someone else’s version of sexy. You’re your own version; embrace your cancer body. Celebrate the things you enjoy sexually and understand you might have limitations. Those limitations are okay. Find your new normal, embrace it, and enjoy life!