Reclaiming Your Sex Life After the Big C — Cancer

Cancer may change your body and stifle your drive, but you can still have a vibrant sex-life!

When I received a diagnosis of stage III colorectal cancer (with tumors in my colon and rectum) at the age of 36, questions flooded my mind. What were my chances of survival? How long would I be on chemotherapy? When would my surgeon cut the cancer out of me? I can admit now that one of them was even, “What exactly is my ‘colon’?”

This was life and death and I was in warrior mode. I was only concerned about living. Death, to me, was not an option. At least that was the philosophy I was invested in.

In the discussions I had with my surgeon, oncologist, nurses, and the many other helpful people at the hospital where I was treated, we spoke about side-effects of chemo (hair thinning, neuropathy, sensitivity to cold), how to manage my ileostomy bag (or a “poop bag” that would hang off my abdomen for a few months), we talked about my temporary low fiber diet, and we chatted about what to do if I spiked a fever.

However, nobody brought up the topic of my sex-life, or that my desire level might diminish.

My treatments left me with zero sex-drive.

Despite my usual crushes, soon after treatments began, I discovered that I had zero sexual drive. In addition to the lessened desire for physical intimacy, once I had a bag of my own human waste hanging from my belly, I definitely didn’t want anyone I was interested in seeing me in the nude.

I already had body image issues. I had gone through most of my life as a compulsive overeater, and for all of my adulthood had been uncomfortable with the appearance of my naked self. Now I was thin, due to chemo, and single. But I had a bag of excrement hanging off of me. It felt very unsexy, and definitely something I didn’t want to reveal to a new potential love.

Besides the bag, my hormones had reacted to the chemicals that coursed through my body to kill the cancer. I had no desire for sex.

Cancer often leads to body image challenges.

Women with breast cancer often have similar experiences. Having one’s breasts removed in order to save one’s life can result in a negative self image (this is, admittedly, a simplification of a very complex experience for women), and a feeling of no longer being feminine or sexually attractive.

Some women even go without a potentially life-saving mastectomy in favor of keeping the breasts they feel are absolutely necessary in order to find love. However, many people love women who don’t have breasts, and those without them find partners who adore them. We can maintain our sexuality even with seeming insurmountable physical challenges to our sense of sexiness.

However, a diminished sexual desire during cancer may have nothing to do with our appearance, but instead be a physical symptom of the medical treatments we are experiencing to save our lives. Breast cancer treatments, for example, can actually cause vaginal pain that makes intercourse painful for many women.

Young sick woman smelling a fresh flower from her husband

A diminished drive may remain after the cancer is gone.

Once we come out the other side, and finish our cancer-related treatments and surgeries, challenges to our sex drives may continue. In some cases, the loss of sexual desire is without a concrete medical explanation, or solution.

However, there is a lot we can do to bring sexy back into our lives, and work with our partners to create a pleasurable experience for ourselves once again.

We can reclaim our sex-lives during and after cancer.

Though treatments, surgeries, and poop bags can pose challenges to our sexuality, they are not insurmountable. With a little creativity, persistence, and patience, we can have sex lives while we fight for our lives.

Whether we’ve lost our breasts or are flaunting an ileostomy bag, the dramatic physical changes we go through to rid ourselves of cancer can make us feel like we’re not our sexy selves. That just means we may need to go deep inside, and also use some handy tools.

If you feel unsexy due to an outward physical change, try looking at yourself in a mirror and focusing what you love about your body–making a mental list. What about your beautiful skin, your glowing eyes, your gentle touch? These are all very sexy. There’s no need to stay locked into conventional ideas of what makes a body desirable. Your body has been revised, so why not update your ideas about it?

Whatever you are feeling, you can have a romantic life.

Lingerie is fun, flirty, sexy, and lets us reveal what we want to reveal when we want to reveal it. Some talented and thoughtful designers have created lingerie for women with bodies altered by cancer.

Jasmine Stacey has made gorgeous, sexy underthings in beautiful fabrics that are specific designed for people with ostomies (like my ileostomy). Royce Lingerie makes bras with women who have had mastectomies in mind (with pockets for prostheses). However, many women are opting to go flat these days, and if that group includes you, you may want to experiment with fun flimsy lace camisoles that don’t require a breast or something shaped like one.

When chemo has you feeling like you just need to lay in bed and get some rest, but you want to spend time with your partner, you can explore a romantic mental space together. Why not go on an imagined date? Try cuddling and talking your way through what you would do together if you felt up to it. Where would you go? What foreign country? Which great national park would you hike in together? What do you see?

Painful vaginal sex due to breast cancer treatments may mean that it’s the last thing you want to engage in. However, there are a lot of ways to be physically intimate that don’t involve vaginal intercourse. Oral sex and stimulation using our hands are easy tools to use when other forms of intercourse are not in play. If you do want to try vaginal sex, then there are many lubricants on the market that may make it easier.

Whatever your situation is, be sure to communicate your experience with your partner. Though your symptoms may be obvious to you, they may not be to the person who you are involved with. Gently letting them know your sensitivities and needs will help them to treat you in a caring way.

Sick wife hugging husband after successful therapy against brain cancer

Even without a medical explanation for your lack of interest in sex, there is something you can do.

One thing I learned from my cancer is that even long after the treatments are behind you, even once you are used to the scars, cancer can cause a diminished sex drive, which was my experience. I went to a specialist and found no good medical explanation or cure. It was up to me to find a way to cope with it.

The greatest gift I received during this process was advice to simply jump into romance and follow the feelings that come up. It worked, and when my body is just not making the sexual connection for me, I make it in my mind, and the physical usually followed.

If I put on some beautiful lingerie, look at my handsome boyfriend, think about his wonderful qualities, and dive in, soon those old feelings start to bubble to the surface.

As it turns out, despite those scars on my abdomen: the big vertical line where my surgeon cut out my cancer and the shorter kiss of red where my bag hung off of me, my partner loves my belly. The part of me I could barely bear to look at following my cancer is one that he loves.

Let others love you.

When we decide for others that we aren’t sexy, we don’t give them the opportunity to show us how much they are attracted to us. Whether we have lost our breasts or have a body covered in scars, others can still desire us.

If we “no” ourselves before giving others the opportunity to say, “yes” we may reject love before it finds us. If we have faith that we are sexual human beings deserving of pleasure, with or without cancer, then we open ourselves up to love, romance, and a healthy sexy life.

For more about dating while living with cancer, read this story by the same author.