Luckily, I’d reached out to other patients so I had an inkling of what was to come. I knew that even a nipple-sparing mastectomy would eliminate two key players on the team, leaving my chest a dead zone — no nerves, no feeling, nothing. But not all breast cancer patients know this going in. I still hear horror stories about women who have mastectomies then turn to their doctors in puzzlement when their skin and/or nipples remain numb.
Losing my breasts and sensation was just the beginning. Chemo, radiation and tamoxifen pretty much neutered me, tamping down that sweet little flame of desire that flickers within us all. I’m sure my oncologist went through all the potential side effects before I started treatment, but all I heard was hair loss, nausea and radiation burns.
Hair grows back, though. Libidos, not so much.
The sad truth is along with saving your life (knock wood), cancer treatment can squelch your libido, make sex painful (or impossible), mess with your ability to orgasm and even render your private parts numb — and that goes for both men and women. It’s not a given and it’s all a matter of degrees, but it happens. A lot.
Chemo and radiation can wreak havoc with the soft, deliciously sensitive parts of your body, damaging the mucous membranes in your mouth, nose, eyes, ears, and yes, vagina, penis and anus. Radiation can also burn your skin, fry your ovaries and sperm and turn soft, sensitive tissue thick and tough. Anti-hormone treatments, the bane of breast and prostate cancer patients, put a kibosh on intimacy in about 17 different ways — even cuddling is out when hot flashes make people feel like they’re going to spontaneously combust. And all three reduce blood flow, which keeps our private bits plump and moist and, well, sensational — the very stuff of sex. Without it, these delicate tissues atrophy.
Cancer cuts us to our sexual quick. Men may struggle with impotence, women may lose their natural lubrication and most everybody’s joy button is off, thanks to the physiological, emotional and/or psychological changes wrought by diagnosis and treatment. It’s hard to feel sexy when you’re suddenly wearing surgical drains or a colostomy bag or your prostate meds have given you man boobs. And then there’s that whole death thing.
But it’s not just patients with prostate or colon or other below-the-belt cancers who suffer. Anyone who’s been through cancer treatment can experience a sexual sea change, even those who’ve gone through treatment for leukemia as kids.
And surprise! Nobody wants to talk about it: not doctors, not patients, not even their partners. Sex after cancer has become the elephant in the bedroom.