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I’ve been wondering about my femininity and sexuality since undergoing breast cancer treatments. Can you help me?

Gabrielle Piedalue, sexology intern, explains.

IS IT NORMAL …

… to be concerned that I won’t be comfortable with my body after treatment?

You may be concerned about your new appearance when you look at yourself in the mirror. Until now you’ve put all your energy into dealing with medical treatments that may have caused hair loss, weight gain, changed the shape of your breasts, etc.  So it’s perfectly legitimate to be concerned now that you’re faced with this new body. Try taking time to familiarize yourself with these changes. Understand that your body is unique and it’s yours and yours alone, whether you have or don’t have breast cancer. Simply asking your medical team to explain the effects of surgery and treatments could help you learn to accept your body. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Once the unknowns have been demystified, you will find it easier to feel comfortable with your body.

… to feel less desirable?

You may feel less desirable after undergoing the various operations and treatments for breast cancer. You may even feel that the loss of a breast robs you of part of your femininity, and that your body no longer meets socially accepted standards for women. Don’t forget that sensuality, well-being and desirability don’t depend on the image you project, but on how you feel about them. That’s why you shouldn’t compare yourself to anyone but yourself. Learn to get to know yourself, and to make the most of the body that fought along with you. Find out what helps you feel more attractive, such as a new hairdo, new lipstick or a sweater. Whatever you do, do it at your own pace! The key is to give yourself the time you need to accept your body with all its changes. It takes time to get to know your body and, above all, learn to find it as desirable as ever.

… to want to avoid intimacy with my spouse?

After breast cancer treatment, a woman may experience a loss of libido or a sense of reluctance to be intimate with her partner. You may need time to feel at ease with your new reality. Fear can affect your desire for intimacy, for example, the fear of your partner not accepting your new body, or of you and your partner not being able to recapture your emotional intimacy. Often the partner may share the same anxieties, out of fear of causing pain during sexual relations. Don’t hesitate to talk openly with your partner about your feelings and concerns regarding sexual intimacy. That’s the first step towards confronting problems related to cancer and sexuality. Communication is very important, even if it’s difficult to bring up this subject. Try to gradually bring up subjects such as the most comfortable positions, the best way to achieve climax, etc. This discussion can enlighten both you and your partner and help put you at ease.

Don’t forget that there’s more to intimacy than just sexual relations. You can focus on affection, kissing or massages. Sometimes a simple hug can be beneficial for you. For some women, being hugged can help improve their general well-being. You can also take time to explore new erogenous zones, which may help you experience new and enjoyable sensations. Ask your partner to caress you, or massage you gently, without necessarily touching the genital area. This will help you discover sensitive spots you weren’t even aware you had, and give you more confidence for more intimate moments. In the process you will explore different ways to give and receive pleasure. You can also do this by yourself.

Lastly, give yourself time. Don’t judge yourself based on your first sexual relations after treatments, as they may not be what you expected. Remember that breast cancer is an ordeal that you share with your partner. So don’t hesitate to share your needs and your emotional and sexual limitations.

** Our sincere appreciation to psychologist Violaine Dasseville, sexologist and family therapist Ann-France Paradis, and breast cancer survivor Johanne Babin for their assistance with writing this column.

Suggested Reading

  • Canadian Cancer Society (2006). Sexuality and Cancer: a Practical Guide, 25 pages.
  • Fincannon, J. & Bruss, K. (2002). Couples Confronting Cancer: Keeping Your Relationship Strong, American Cancer Society, 288 pages.
  • Weiss, M. & Weiss E. (2010). Living well beyond breast cancer, Three Rivers Press, 528 pages.

Suggested Viewing

Lepage, Marquise. (2011). Les mots et les gestes qui soignent, Les productions du cerf-volant, Québec, 2 hours (in French).