Everyone is talking about breast cancer, but no one seems to be talking about sexuality. According to the American Cancer Society, studies show that doctors don’t always ask about sexuality and patients may not receive the information and support that they need. Breast cancer brings with it a barrage of emotions – including dismay, confusion, and anxiety, to name a few – that can be daunting, especially when dealing with physical changes. Anyone with breast cancer can experience sexual dysfunction and intimacy issues, regardless if you are a woman or a man, lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, or gender non-conforming. It’s important to ask questions of your healthcare team to get the personalized answers and support that you need.
A 2023 study in the Journal of Clinical Oncology states that more than 60% of women with a history of cancer have issues with their sexual health. Indeed, the physical and psychological effects of dealing with breast cancer can take a toll on desire, body image, and well-being. Mental and emotional trauma can deeply affect the way your physical body responds so it is important to have open conversations with your cancer care team to understand various possibilities of the side effects from procedures, surgeries, and treatments. Yet, communication goes way beyond the doctor’s office – discussions with a partner could be your gateway into deeper intimacy.
Sex is more than just penetration and you can create your own way of being intimate that doesn’t look like anyone else’s way. Tenderness, warmth, and emotional closeness are important factors of a mutual understanding between two people. When it comes to sexuality, consider the following, no matter what age or stage you are in:
- Sensuality is a big part of intimacy and sexuality. Consider all of your five senses when creating intimacy with your partner. Together you might listen to music, create and/or eat a great meal, watch a sunset or take in some fine art, walk through a garden or arboretum, or partake in a couple’s massage. Let all of these experiences together help you to open your senses of tasting, seeing, hearing, smelling, and touching. Allow for new perspectives to be open, linger in even the seemingly mundane sensations, experience your sensory organs in a whole new way.
- Let everything be a new experience. Bring your sense of wonder and curiosity to every opportunity, even your daily activities. Do your best to be in the moment of your experience without needing to compare now to the way it was before you had breast cancer. Open to new possibilities.
- Teach yourself the skills of relaxation. This is a great time to start, or even advance, a regular meditation practice and there are simple techniques that can invite you into deeper states of ease. In their book, Meditation Secrets for Women, authors Camille Maurine and Lorin Roche uncover the similarities between meditation and sex. “You get an inner urge or call and give yourself the time and space to sensuously explore,” they say. “The quality of attention in meditation is a lot like sex, when you find the way you like it. It is a delicate, internal meeting, a meandering discover of what you enjoy, and a gradual surrender into more and more pleasure.” Seek out a meditation coach who can help guide you into finding your own unique style.
- Find new ways to move. A yoga practice can also help you tap into a deeper connection with your body. Add on the layers of pranayama (breath practice), meditation, and mindfulness, and you get a potent concoction for increasing pleasure. According to an article from Harvard Health Publishing, a study from The Journal of Sexual Medicine found that yoga could improve certain aspects of sexuality including desire, arousal, orgasm, and overall satisfaction. The Journal of Oncology states that it also lowers fatigue and improves mood. The non-profit organization, 2unstoppable, offers group yoga practices, moving meditations, and other movement classes, in addition to one-on-one exercise “buddies” who can help inspire you during and after your cancer experience.
- Create an atmosphere that invites intimacy. Turn down the lights, illuminate some candles, put on some soft music, fluff up the pillows and add some soft blankets or textures that you love to your bed or sofa, put on a scent that pleases you or add one to a room diffuser. Enhancing the environment is a great way to boost your sensual mood.
- Wear something comfortable. Lingerie is not the only option. Choose fabrics and materials that feel good on your skin. If you wear a prosthesis, honor your personal choice of wearing a bra or a soft tank top and matching panties during sex, or alternatively, nothing at all. Remember to communicate with your partner, and be soft with yourself.
- Explore your own body. Practice self-massage. You might begin with a bath or shower – water creates a soothing, sensual, personal experience. Explore different kinds of touch – feather strokes, firm or light pressure, kneading – on different parts of your body. After you bathe, continue the experience with some cream or lotion, or consider abhyanga, a style of Ayurvedic massage that uses warm oil over the whole body. Touching yourself in a sensual way can help to soften anxiety and be a great beginning for getting back to sex with a partner.
- Slow down. Respect your own pace with your body as it is right now. It might help to take your time with other things besides sex, like eating. Feel your breath, say a dedication or a prayer, create a particular feeling state that you want to expand into in your experience. Consider non-sexual ways that you can be intimate and sensual and feel pleasure, like hugging, eye-gazing, soft conversation.
Ask your healthcare provider for additional resources and then give yourself the gift of time and space to sensuously explore.