Sexuality after cancer
Breast cancer brings many challenges. But one that many overlook—and that many breast cancer survivors don’t talk about with their doctors—is sexual challenges during and after treatment. According to a study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine, seven out of 10 breast cancer survivors struggled with issues related to their sexual health two years after diagnosis due to a variety of factors such as poor body image and estrogen endocrine blocking therapy.
“Breast cancer often causes a life-changing relationship a woman has with her body, and it is important for women to realize what that relationship is and what it could be,” says Andrea Karoff, coordinator of psychosocial oncology and sex therapist at the Creticos Cancer Center at Advocate Illinois Masonic Medical Center in Chicago.
Another study, conducted at the University of Chicago by Hill Ek, talked to breast cancer survivors and found that more than 40 percent of participants were interested in sexual health care, but never sought out programs or other support.
What many cancer survivors don’t realize is that there are experts and resources that can help them, Karoff says.
Karoff hopes to change the stigma around sexual health and cancer and help people understand their mind and body after such a life-changing diagnosis.
“Your biggest sex organs are your brain and your skin,” she says. “Without the mind in the right place to want to be intimate, it’s hard to get your body there.”
Karoff focuses on the relationship you have to your body, which is often shaken after a life-altering event like breast cancer.
She offers three pieces of advice to survivors in order to start having a better understanding of sex and intimacy after breast cancer. They include:
- Mind over body. It is essential to understand the role the mind plays in getting the body ready for intimacy and sex, says Karoff. In order for your body to be ready and in the mood for intimacy, it is necessary for your mind to be ready as well. Karoff suggests that if you are having sex but not enjoying it, it’s important to go back to the mind and see what is going on that could be a concern.
- Don’t be limited by ‘tradition’. There are many ways intimacy can be experienced other than through intercourse. Breast cancer can push us to expand our “comfort zones” with regard to what it means to be intimate and how we express this intimacy. Karoff often recommends sensate focus exercises that help a person become more attuned to their own body and that of their partner, helping build confidence in oneself and one’s partner.
- Ask and you shall receive. Many patients are uncomfortable asking their doctors these kinds of questions, and some doctors shy away from it as well. However, if you do have questions, Karoff says to ask your doctor or nurse. If they don’t have the answers you’re seeking, it is important that you then ask who they’d recommend you speak with. Your sexual health is an important part of who you are, and addressing your concerns with the right person is as important as all other aspects of your treatment.
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