When you hear the words, “You have breast cancer,” your first thought is probably not about how it will affect your sex life.
But after cancer, you can find yourself navigating a whole new world in the bedroom. Your body may look and feel different, you may tire more easily, and you may just not feel like sex—ever. Even women who are interested in sex might deal with problems from early-onset menopause, vaginal dryness, or lack of libido caused by some post-cancer medications.
It’s not hopeless, but what worked before cancer may no longer work after, or even be viable. Intimacy after cancer can offer new challenges, but, as noted in the video below, there is life after breast cancer, even in the bedroom.
Here are 12 tips for renewing your sex life after breast cancer:
1. Reconnect with your body visually
Regardless of whether you go through lumpectomy, mastectomy, go flat, or choose reconstruction, your body will look different after breast cancer. There might be changes to your skin, weight, or hair that make you not feel like yourself. When you’re uncomfortable in your own skin, the idea of taking off your clothes for your partner—or even yourself—can be scary. It’s important to reconnect gently.
Start by reconnecting with your body visually. Stand in front of a mirror, starting with your clothes on if necessary. Say positive things about yourself aloud. Maybe you like your lipstick, your eyes, or maybe it’s just that your body has overcome a lot. Start with a few positive messages and then add more—don’t worry about what you think you should look like, try to appreciate how you really look. As you get more comfortable, practice the same exercise in underwear and then naked.
Your words have power—use them to empower yourself about your body.
2. Reconnect with your body physically
Once you can say nice things about yourself, it’s time to do nice things for yourself. If being touched by your partner sounds intimidating, start by touching yourself. This may be off-putting at first for some people, but remember that self-touch is a good way to show appreciation for yourself and build confidence.
Start by lying on your bed alone and touching your arms or neck or giving yourself a little massage. You can then progress to gently stroking and caressing yourself in other areas to see where you feel pleasure. Don’t restrict yourself to certain areas—see where you can feel sensation.
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3. Have a conversation
Help yourself feel comfortable by expressing your fears and concerns to your partner. Tell them about what things feel different, and be sure to ask about their feelings and concerns. Issues can’t be solved if they’re not expressed, and gaining the understanding of your partner can help you help you feel more comfortable during intimacy.
Try to approach the conversation with the attitude that obstacles can be overcome. Ask your partner to help you find new ways to enjoy touching if what worked before is no longer comfortable.
4. Talk about pain
It’s likely that sex will be different, and if you experience pain or discomfort, you may just dismiss it as “the way things are.” Or, you may not want to say anything so that your partner can continue to have pleasure. But if you stay silent, your partner won’t know you’re uncomfortable (even the best can’t read minds) and may continue doing something you don’t enjoy. If you experience pain or discomfort every time, your desire for sex will quickly drop.
It’s important to feel safe and comfortable during intimacy, and it’s okay if that means certain things no longer work for you—there are lots of ways to experience sexual pleasure. Speak up! Sex will be more fun if you find a way that you can both enjoy yourselves.
5. Ask for what you need
This seems obvious, but a lot of women struggle to ask for what they want in the bedroom, especially if it doesn’t seem like a normal request. But it is okay to ask for something special for yourself! Would you consider a special request from your partner? Then they should consider one from you! Again, no one is a mind-reader, so do yourselves both a favor and explain what you’d like to try.
You may need to try more foreplay, touching different body parts, or using new toys in order to experience the same level of pleasure as you did before cancer, so make it fun and present your requests. You can even try to integrate new requests into a coupon book or sexy game of truth-or-dare.
6. Loosen up
If it’s been a while since you’ve had sex, you might experience vaginal tightness or dryness. Changing hormone levels or early menopause can cause the vagina’s lining to lose some of its elasticity and ability to self-lubricate, and some medications can contribute to dryness. This can be extremely frustrating, especially when you are feeling aroused. Here are a few strategies that can help:
- Try lubrication. Choose a gentle, water-based lubricant with no added scents or herbal extracts, as those could irritate delicate skin. The American Cancer Society recommends against using petroleum jelly, lotion, or oil-based lubricants as they may increase risk of yeast infection. Lubrication can be used on your and your partner’s genitals as well as on fingers and toys.
- Moisturize. While it’s not a good idea to use skin lotion on the vagina, you may want to try a vaginal moisturizer. These are available without a prescription and can help increase moisture and maintain a normal pH balance.
- Try a dilator. A vaginal dilator is a small tube that helps stretch the inside of the vagina and teach women how to relax vaginal muscles. It’s used like a tampon and put in around three times a week for 10 to 20 minutes. They’re typically used with lubricant, and a woman can practice contracting and relaxing her vaginal mucles while using one.
- Practice Kegels. You may have heard that Kegel exercises can help with bladder control, and they can, but they can also help a woman learn to relax her vagina. Women may unconsciously tighten their vagina if they’ve experienced painful sex, and that makes penetration more difficult and potentially more painful. Kegels also increase pelvic floor strength which help with arousal response. Learn how to do Kegels here.