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It’s difficult to find the way back to feeling sexy after breast cancer. As though the treatment itself wasn’t trying enough, the aftermath stays tethered to us. Depending on the extent of treatment, our bodies may feel foreign. Even a lumpectomy – possibly the least invasive of treatments, though still significant – leaves scars. Surgery can damage nerves, leaving us without feeling in our breasts or nipples, assuming we still have them; some of us have reconstructed breasts, some choose to go flat. Those of us who have undergone chemotherapy and/or radiation therapy can have lingering side effects: changes to our skin, vaginal dryness, loss of hair. Hormone therapy, which some of us will need for years, thrusts the younger of us into menopause and all that comes with it: hot flashes, vaginal atrophy, weight gain, low libido, even difficulty achieving orgasm.
Needless to say, intimacy can be a challenge. We sometimes feel angry; a highly sexualized part of the female form is now tainted for us. Or fearful, because deep in the back of our minds we’re triggered by the idea of another lump being found, maybe while someone is touching our breasts. Sorrow is often present, as we mourn the loss of our old self, our pre-cancer body, our sense of confidence, our sexuality.
Cancer is sometimes called a “social disease” because it affects not only the person who was diagnosed, but everyone in that person’s life. Parents, children, partners, siblings, friends – are all changed by a cancer diagnosis. Life can become particularly challenging for couples facing breast cancer. While the person diagnosed is struggling with a changed body, damaged self-confidence, and side effects, the partner may struggle too; feeling powerlessness, feeling one’s own needs have been neglected, or perhaps feeling angry about the cancer that has disrupted life. So not only does the breast cancer survivor have to manage her own struggles, post-treatment, but she is also faced with the challenges her diagnosis has brought into the lives of those she loves. And unfortunately, not all couples survive a cancer diagnosis.
Let’s take this from the abstract to the concrete. In December 2018, days after turning 34, I was diagnosed with invasive lobular carcinoma, a type of breast cancer that accounts for about 10% of all breast cancer cases. My treatment included a bilateral mastectomy, 16 rounds of chemotherapy, and 35 rounds of radiation therapy. That was the entirety of 2019 for me; breast cancer treatment. Thoughts of intimacy crossed my mind throughout the year, but more as a passing desire or concern, as everything took a backseat to treatment.
Now it’s 2020 and looking at me, you’d have no idea of the ordeal I experienced. Those who know about my experience likely believe “the worst is over” because treatment is complete. But recovery is a long, difficult road. As much as I want aspects of my life to be as they were before breast cancer, there is no way back. My perspective and my body are forever changed, and I am left managing lingering side effects, including the damage to my self-confidence and struggles with intimacy.
As many of us do, I turned to the internet to find guidance and support. Fortunately, there are some wonderful organizations offering resources and tools to help those of us impacted by breast cancer. Living Beyond Breast Cancer (lbbc.org) has an entire section dedicated to sex and intimacy and one article suggested reading erotica as a way to stimulate and renew interest in intimacy. More searching led me to articles from places like Psychology Today and Healthline, which reinforced the idea that erotica can help rekindle interest in sex, both for individuals and couples. At the recommendation of my oncologist, I downloaded the Rosy app, specifically for the “Thriving Sexually During & After Cancer” class. Rosy also has a section for erotica stories, which seemed like a great place to start exploring whether erotica could help me reconnect with myself.
Like other genres, there are a multitude of styles and themes within erotica. Unsure of what might interest me, I picked the first story on the list in the app. It was intriguing and engaging, up until the action turned to the breasts. “Nipples hard”, “perfectly round”; none of that was me. I no longer have nipples, I lack sensation in about 50% of my chest, and my breasts are, well, a work in progress. Skipping to the next story, it didn’t take long for me to find the intimacy starting again with breasts.
Surprisingly, I felt…triggered. It’s not that I don’t recall those sensations, but they are lost to me. Breast cancer stole them. I skimmed more stories and nearly every one had a heavy focus on breasts. Emotions flooded my mind. I felt sad, being reminded of an intimate, physical act that I won’t ever feel again. Then there was envy. The ease with which the characters in these stories engaged in physical acts was not my current experience. And to top it off, they were all described as having beautiful, healthy breasts!
My plan to use erotica as a way to reconnect with my body and my sexual self backfired. Sure, I could skip past the foreplay and move to the meat of the story (puns intended), but that only served as yet another reminder of my cancer when all I wanted was a bit of an escape from it. A possible solution to this issue came in the form of the Rosy Erotica Writing Contest. The idea of putting on paper the interactions or acts that might make me feel sexy, connected, loved, seemed powerful. I decided to create a story that omitted any mention of breasts and in way, it let me feel like I could reclaim a part of my sexual self.
Looking ahead, I would love to see stories targeted toward breast cancer survivors, sensitive to the challenges they may be facing when it comes to their changed bodies. And I would absolutely encourage my fellow survivors to try your hand at writing your own stories. Regardless of one’s writings skills, creating a story for yourself can be empowering.
Rosy is proud to announce we’ve released erotica in our app that offers breast cancer survivors stories and intimacy they can relate to. Check out Boardwalk Surprise and Dreamboat Hookup in the app now.
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