Breast cancer can impact your sex life: What to know about changes, side effects and embracing your body

It's not uncommon to experience emotional changes, a lower libido and physical discomfort after going through breast cancer.

This article is for informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Contact a qualified medical professional before engaging in any physical activity, or making any changes to your diet, medication or lifestyle.

Breast cancer can sometimes impact sex and intimacy. (Photo via Getty Images)
For some people who experience breast cancer, they may see changes to their sex life and intimacy. (Photo via Getty Images)

Breast cancer affects all areas of life, but it's not just the physical that needs to be addressed. Emotional aspects like body image, sex life and intimacy often get left behind.

While experiencing these challenges can sometimes feel isolating, it's important to understand you're not alone. In fact, various studies indicate a large portion of people who go through breast cancer report some difficulties when it comes to their sex lives.

In honour of Women's Health Week from May 12 to 18, read on to learn more about how breast cancer can impact sex, how to manage side effects what tips experts offer.

Breast cancer survivors may face different challenges when it comes to sex, such as:

  • Emotional changes: Dealing with cancer both during and after treatment can affect self-esteem and wellbeing, which can impact intimate relationships

  • Appearance changes: Those affected by breast cancer can experience changes to their appearance and thus affect their confidence and body image

  • Loss of libido: After treatment some breast cancer patients experience a reduced sex drive

  • Physical discomfort: Symptoms such as painful sex and vaginal dryness can affect your mood and sexual experience

"Issues with sex and intimacy don't usually start or become an issue with respect to awareness until later in survivorship because during treatment the focus is on getting through it," Dr. Kimberley Cullen, a psychologist, sex therapist and educator, previously told Yahoo Canada.

"But after things like chemo or surgery, sexual, emotional and/or physiological changes can happen quickly and it can be hard to adjust."

Woman suffering from depression, sadness and headache. (Photo via Getty Images)
There are several challenges many breast cancer survivors experience, including changes to their emotions, a lower sex drive and physical discomfort. (Photo via Getty Images)

That's where MJ DeCoteau, founder and executive director of Rethink Breast Cancer, believes the charity can come into play. The Toronto-based non-profit aims to make change, empower patients and "rethink the status quo" when it comes to all things breast cancer — including sex and intimacy — so people feel less alone. Cullen added she believes this support and acknowledgment is essential in helping breast cancer survivors feel their best when it comes to sex.

Most breast cancer survivors of all ages report difficulties in some area of sexuality for three years following treatment.Dr. Kim Cullen

"In my research, most breast cancer survivors of all ages report difficulties in some area of sexuality for at least three years following treatment. But this distressing problem is continually identified as one of the top unmet needs," Cullen said.

"This is why support, research and connection about this topic without judgement is so important."

Pain after sex is a common side effect after breast cancer. (Photo via Getty Images) woman have bladder pain and stomach ache sitting on bed in bedroom after wake up feeling so sick and painful,Healthcare breast cancer concept
Pain after sex is a common side effect after breast cancer. (Photo via Getty Images)

Roughly 50 per cent of breast cancer patients experienced sexual difficulties and 45 per cent reported pain, according to a 2022 study. Other side effects might include vaginal dryness, changing libido, difficulty achieving orgasm and general changes in how your body functions when it comes to sensations or erogenous areas.

"It can be significant and distressing to experience these changes in your body, but there are ways to manage and cope," Cullen shared. "Your physician can help address things like low libido, and a pelvic floor physiotherapist can help too."

Educating yourself on the subject and giving yourself grace is just as important. But if you're looking for a physical fix, you might find help using vaginal moisturizers, pillows, toys and lube.

"Respect your body for where it's at, and give yourself time and space to get to know your post-cancer body."MJ DeCoteau

"Don't be discouraged if you didn't need to use toys or lube before breast cancer," added Cullen. "It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you or your partner."

toys only for adult. Lubricant and toys are ways to make intimacy more pleasurable after breast cancer. (Photo via Getty Images)
Lubricant and toys are ways to make intimacy more pleasurable after breast cancer. (Photo via Getty Images)

Breast cancer takes a toll both mentally and physically. No matter where you're at in your health journey, it's important to give yourself grace.

"Respect your body for where it's at, and give yourself time and space to get to know your post-cancer body," DeCoteau shared.

Both DeCoteau and Cullen recommend getting to know your new body in a step-by-step process. First, you want to reconnect with your body as an area of safety, comfort and privacy. Afterwards, connect with your body in terms of confidence and understanding what your body can do for you.

"This is individualized, so it could be movement-related in terms of yoga or dance, or physically related like putting on a pair of heels or doing your makeup," Cullen said.

Cullen explained an important aspect of your post-cancer body is touching base with partners. The effects of breast cancer on the body can be stressful for a romantic relationship, so it's important to discuss how you feel with your partner.

"Going back on dates or being physically affectionate with your partner is an important way to rebuild trust with your body from a physical and sexual standpoint, but all at your own pace, of course," Cullen said.

Studio photo with grey background of an African woman touching her breast in a cancer detection examination
After breast cancer, it's important to give yourself grace and treat your body with care. (Photo via Getty Images)

DeCoteau said she wants breast cancer fighters to know they aren't alone on this journey. Moreover, feeling awkward, uncomfortable or hesitant is normal: "It's important for both couples and individuals with breast cancer to know that this all is very common."

Rethink Breast Cancer, among other educators and institutions, is breaking down the barriers and addressing taboos to help breast cancer survivors to reclaim their bodies. To learn more about sexual health, intimacy, dating, menopause and more with breast cancer, Rethink Breast Cancer's online posts have you covered. Moreover, Rethink Breast Cancer's Give-A-Care line includes various products to help improve your sexual, mental and physical health.

"It might require self-advocacy, but it'll be worth it," Cullen added. "Recovery is not linear."

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