Every two minutes, a woman in the United States is diagnosed with breast cancer. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, which means you're reading a lot of stats like that one lately, and seeing lots of temporarily pink products in the grocery store. The month might conjure the image of middle-aged, gray-haired women marching for a cure. But we don't always hear the stories of women who have it in their 20s or 30s—and then move on and live a whole life afterward.
There are the obvious repercussions to fighting breast cancer—losing your hair, potentially losing your breasts, losing your vision of the future. And there are the less obvious ones, like losing your sex drive. Breast cancer and its treatment can leave women with lower libido, a poor body image, and painful penetration. It adds insult to terrible injury.
The following women all opened up to us about how breast cancer transformed their sex lives. There's Felicia, 31; Shiana, 27; Arleen, 37; Candance, 31; Emily, 34; Janice, 40; and Allie, 27. Their stories are often sad, but always powerful—and an excellent reminder to anyone reading to appreciate and praise your body for everything it does.
Marie Claire: What was your treatment like?
Candance: My treatment started with removal of both breasts and reconstruction. I had 16 rounds of chemo and 33 rounds of radiation. I lost my hair and nails, and my chest got discolored from radiation.
Shiana: I lost hair, my face broke out...there were mouth sores and a lot of swelling. At times I would need assistance bathing because my bones ached.
Emily: I found the whole medical process dehumanizing. In order to try and get my body "fixed," I had to hand it over to myriad medical professionals. In doing so, I lost all sense of autonomy.
Janice: I found going through active treatment easier. There was this anticipation that afterwards things would get back to normal. Things definitely don't go back to normal.
"Things definitely don't go back to normal."
MC: Did your doctors talk to you at any point about how having breast cancer might affect your romantic or sex life?
Allie: When I was first diagnosed my doctor asked what my plans were for child bearing. It was never a conversation about having sex itself.
Arleen: My doctors never communicated to me that my sex life would be affected. In fact, I thought I was going to go back to normal once treatments were done. My desire for sex is gone.
Emily: My oncologist said "no rough sex," and to use protection. My partner and I did more research, and we understood that "no rough sex" meant that we shouldn't do things that could tear the very weak mucous membranes of my orifices because I had no immune system.
MC: Did you struggle with body image issues at all?
Janice: Looking back, I had this idea that I was getting a free boob job. When I would say it the doctor would laugh and say, "Yes, you should look for the silver lining." I didn't realize that this would be the opposite of a boob job. It is a neuter job.
Candance: Even though I have been through the plastic surgery, I didn't look at myself for the first year and a half. To this day I have not taken my shirt off in front of anyone but my plastic surgeon.
Emily: I worried that people seeing my body would think I was some kind of monster.
Shiana: I had gained a lot of weight due to steroids. I still deal with not having my hair and no eyebrows...it makes me feel insecure.
Arleen: I have a long scar along the side of my breast which doesn't bother me as much as how the breast actually feels—it hurts to the touch.
"I didn't look at myself for the first year and a half."
MC: How did treatment for breast cancer affect your sex life?
Arleen: I've only been able to have sex a few times in four years. I'm currently taking Tamoxifen, and it has affected my vagina to the point that I can no longer have intercourse without feeling discomfort.
Allie: Let's face it, bringing a guy home is a little tricky when you're bald.
Janice: I was bald, had scars post-surgery, no nipple, and there was even lots of bleeding while having sex. I have to give guys credit: Never once did they make me feel less than sexy.
Emily: I was unable to perform as I would have liked sexually because I was physically unable to do so for a long time. We had to find new ways of being intimate and sexual that weren't painful for me.
"I have to give guys credit: Never once did they make me feel less than sexy."
MC: If you have a long-term partner, how has having cancer affected the dynamics of your relationship?
Arleen: My partner sees me as a porcelain doll. He thinks my body is too sensitive and often feels discouraged to have sex. The few times we have tried, it's hurt me so much that we've pretty much given up.
Felicia: My boyfriend has been the most loving and supportive partner throughout this whole mess, and I am so thankful for him. But the lack of sex has been a cause of major frustration. I can't help but secretly fear that he might one day just give up on me so that he can get back to living a normal life for a 30-year-old.
Candance: For me it didn't really make a difference. He thought of me as being beautiful regardless. Besides, he's more of a butt guy.
MC: If you're dating, when do you bring up your breast cancer?
Allie: The truth is I haven't been able to date yet. I'm just starting to feel more like myself, and I'm not really sure how or when I would tell someone my nipples are two-dimensional.
Janice: At Stage 3, I don't blurt it out, but if something comes up in conversation that would require me to hide information or lie, then I tell the person. I'm surprised that it's never been a deal breaker.
Emily: I was worried that people would think I was a monster with my big scars and lack of breasts. But one said, "Your ass is so bangin' if you had tits too I might lose my mind." My current partner googled what the physical sensations in my chest might be. She wanted to know how it felt! It was a very kind and thoughtful gesture, as well as a pragmatic one.
MC: Is there anything you've discovered in your romantic and sex life that you want to share with women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer?
Candance: I would tell women who have been diagnosed to love yourself regardless. Live like you have literally been given a second chance.
Felicia: While there are no easy answers, the one thing that has moved mountains for my partner and me is our commitment to communicate honestly, openly, and with empathy.
Allie: What I've discovered most recently is that even with 30 extra pounds and a buzz cut, people still find me attractive and pay attention to who I am and what I have to offer.
"Even with 30 extra pounds and a buzz cut, people still find me attractive and pay attention to who I am and what I have to offer."
MC: Is there anything you've discovered you want to share with women who have not been affected by breast cancer?
Arleen: We never really think we can get cancer, especially at a young age. I think educating ourselves about breast cancer and other gynecological cancers is important.
Allie: It is important to be aware of your body and to not be afraid to take good care of yourself. And also, be kind to one another; being a woman is difficult enough without judgement from other women.
Shiana: There are many things that bother me that people say or sometimes ask. Like when people say "It's just hair, it will grow back," or "You don't look sick."
Janice: Enjoy our beautiful whole body thoroughly. Don't take it for granted. You never know when something will be taken from you.
Candance: Love yourself wholeheartedly. It begins with you.
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