Sex and…cancer?

Every 30 seconds, someone in the United States is diagnosed with cancer.

Last year, at age 37, I was one of those people.

I needed a lumpectomy to remove the two cancerous areas in my right breast, six rounds of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiation. I knew that treatment would be tough, but I didn’t realize just how tough it would be. I lost my signature long red locks, required 20 extra days of IVs to combat the side effects from chemotherapy, was thrown into early menopause, and gained 23 pounds from all the steroids.

As much as treatment affected me, I vowed that I wouldn’t let it stop me from participating in those activities that made me happy. I needed to maintain some sense of normalcy in my life, and continuing to prioritize my sexual health was a key part of that.

If you’re diagnosed with cancer, how can you preserve your normal sexual routine during surgery and treatment?

1. Talk to your doctor. Cancer treatment plans are customized for each individual patient. Your age at diagnosis, the stage and type of cancer, genetic predisposition, pre-existing health conditions and the likelihood of recurrence all play a role in the surgeon and oncologist’s recommendations.

Once you know the plan for your individual case, ask your doctor about any sexual restrictions. Be specific in your questions and inquire about each sexual activity that you enjoy so you know exactly what you’re allowed to do and not do, If you aren’t sure how to talk to your doctor about sex, check out my tips for initiating that conversation;

2. Assuming there’s no medical bar to you achieving orgasm, listen to your body and don’t push it. There will be some days throughout this process when you feel stronger than others. If you’re a female who uses sex toys, choose a smaller, less powerful toy like the Lelo Mia, Je Joue MiMi or Fun Factory LayaSpot. Try not to put pressure on yourself to orgasm as quickly or as often as you previously did. View this as time to relax and forget about cancer for a bit;

3. Treatment protocols can cause a myriad of side effects, including hair loss, extreme fatigue, hormonal fluctuations, weight changes, severe nausea, and burns. Surgery and reactions to treatment can negatively impact how patients view themselves.

“Anything that affects the female sexual organs will have repercussions on body image and on a woman’s sex life,” said Emily Hill, MD, a fourth year resident at the University of Chicago Medical Center, and lead author of a study on female cancer patients and sex.

As you try to process the changes to your body and psyche, give yourself permission to feel angry, sad and overwhelmed. Ask your oncologist for a list of support groups or counselors, talk to friends or former patients, become active in online communities, or journal about your experience to help you process. Strategize about what you can do to feel better about yourself.

If you’re a female who has lost her hair, decide if you feel more comfortable wearing a wig, scarf, hat or nothing at all. Do your best to embrace whatever mode you choose and remind yourself that your hair doesn’t represent your sexuality.

When I lost my hair, I made sure that I wore very dramatic eye makeup and heels. After I lost my eye lashes, I began to wear only bright red nail polish on my fingernails. What can you highlight or wear that will help you feel sexy?

4. If you’re in a relationship, it’s critical that you communicate with your partner during this time. He or she might not understand how treatment affects your body, self-image and sex life. Many male and female cancer patients complain of a decrease in sex drive. Females undergoing chemotherapy can also experience menopause-like symptoms of hot flashes, mood changes and vaginal dryness.

If you’re unable to have sex (because of pain, lack of drive, or doctor’s orders), think of how you can remain connected to your significant other. Kissing, cuddling, massages, candles or bathing together are great ways to maintain a level of intimacy with your partner during a health crisis.

When you are able to have sex, talk to your significant other about what positions are the most comfortable for you. Let your partner know that you will need to be treated with extra tender loving care in the bedroom and speak up the moment that anything hurts. Both you and your significant other will need to be patient to help you reach orgasm. If you’ve been fighting nausea, keep mints on your nightstand to make the experience easier to stomach. It’s also advisable to invest in a high-quality lubricant like Liquid Silk or Sliquid to ensure that sex isn’t painful; and

5. If you’d like to have as much sex as possible during treatment, and your doctor is okay with that, then please do so! Likewise, if you don’t feel up to having sex at all, then go with that.

Cancer and treatment will put enough of a toll on you physically and emotionally so there’s no need to add to your stress and frustration. Go easy on yourself and do whatever feels normal and natural to you. If you aren’t sure what to do, talk to your doctor, a nurse, members of a support group, and/or your partner. There are resources and reinforcements out there to help make this difficult time easier to bear – physically, emotionally and sexually.

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