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Sexuality and Breast Cancer

How Breast Cancer Can Affect Sexuality

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Updated October 04, 2012

Sexuality is part of life, and all life experience may affect our sex lives and sexuality. Even if you haven't had a confirmed diagnosis of breast cancer -- you think you've felt a lump, a doctor suggested they'd like to take a closer look at something you hadn't noticed -- the possibility of breast cancer, the idea of it and all that it evokes, can affect your sexuality. We may not always ask them out loud, but people often have questions about sex and sexuality early on in their experience with breast cancer, questions like:

  • Will breast cancer change the kind of sex I can have?

  • Will it change how much I want sex, or how much I enjoy sex?

  • Will it affect who I get to have sex with? Will people not want to have sex with me?

  • Will sex feel different?

It can be easiest (although easy probably isn't the best word) to focus on detailed questions like these, the anatomical and physiological parts of sexual activities. This approach is often supported by doctors who, if they are comfortable talking about sex at all, tend to focus on sexual functioning. But there are drawbacks to this approach, including:

  • Focus on individual and not social, cultural, environmental factors that affect sexuality can mistakenly lead people to think that they can solve every problem with the right medication or attitude.

  • Breaking sexuality into its "functional" components can strip it of much of its meaning and limit opportunities for sexuality to be a source of strength and support.

  • Medical models of sexuality focus on heterosexual intercourse, ignoring the infinite possibilities for sexual pleasure (not to mention the fact that we don't all have heterosexual intercourse!), and eliminating the possibility that breast cancer can lead to positive personal exploration.

  • Focus on the individual or couple also contributes to social isolation, reducing the opportunities to connect with others around shared challenges.

It is almost certainly the case that breast cancer, like any other significant life experience, will change your sexuality and your sex life. What we forget, or sometimes don't realize until we're confronted with an illness, is that our sexuality is always changing, and in the long run, that change may be for the better.

Below are links to information on some of the predictable ways that diagnosis of and treatment for breast cancer can affect your sexuality in general and your sex life in particular. As you're reading, remember that each of us experiences sex in our own way. Comparing yourself to what is written here or to others, may feel like the right thing to do, but in the end it's often not that helpful. More helpful in the long run is to start with yourself.

Ask yourself what connections you're already aware of between what's happening with and to your body, and your sexuality. Know that you have the right to care as much or as little about sex as you want. Along the way you'll have to pull partners and/or health care providers in for support and ideas, but ultimately you are the one that should be deciding the priorities, pace, and timing of conversations about sex, and having sex.

Sexuality and Breast Cancer Diagnosis
In what ways does a diagnosis of breast cancer immediately change the way you think about sex, the way you imagine your immediate and distant sexual future? If every message we get about sex is that it's for the young and healthy, what does it mean for your sexuality if you're now branded as "sick" or "diseased"? Here are some examples of obstacles people face when they are diagnosed with breast cancer, and tips on how to reduce the affect and increase your access to sexual health and pleasure following breast cancer diagnosis.

Sexuality and Breast Cancer Treatment
There are many different treatments for breast cancer and each of them can have multiple effects on sexuality. On the one hand it's important to get detailed information from health care providers about the effects of your treatment regimen. On the other, it may be time to broaden your definition of what sexuality includes, in order to find ways to be sexual during what can be a long and difficult process, physically, emotionally, and psychologically.

Sexuality and Surviving Breast Cancer
Surviving breast cancer doesn't mean that your sexuality or sex life will go back to the way it was. Just as your sex life when you're 30 won't ever be like it was when you were 20, your sex life after cancer won't be exactly the way it was before. We can't go back. Mind you for many of us the way it was may not have been so hot, and there are those who talk about how dealing with major illness, including breast cancer, has eventually led to them having better sex because they had to learn to ask for what they want and become more active participants in their sexual pleasure.

Sexuality and Terminal Diagnosis
Just as sexuality is a part of life and living, it's a part of dying too. No one has the right to tell you that you should or shouldn't care about sex or want sex to be a significant part of your life, at any time, and least of all at the end of your life. If your cancer diagnosis is terminal you may feel a silent pressure from those around you to put sex and sexuality way on the back burner. And if that's how you feel too, that's okay. But if sexuality is an important part of your life, know that it can be a part of the end of your life as well, it just takes advocacy, desire, creativity, and usually some humor.

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