How Sexuality and Breast Cancer Are Intertwined
Julie’s real-life story highlights our errant belief that looks matter. Hint: You’re more valuable than that!
When it comes to sexuality, breast cancer and its treatments sometimes threaten to defeat us. Julie’s story is a reminder that we are much more than our appearance.
I grimaced at my reflection in the bathroom mirror at my workplace.
“What’s wrong?” my coworker, Sylvia, asked.
“I look awful,” I confided. “My eyebrows fell out because of chemotherapy, and I can’t draw them in correctly. It looks ridiculous.”
She regarded me with a reproachful look and said, “Be thankful you’re alive! Who cares about your eyebrows?”
Well, I did, for one. But, of course, I knew Sylvia wouldn’t understand because she was not battling cancer and still had her eyebrows.
We Never Think About How Sexuality and Breast Cancer Are Intertwined
Of course, she was right — I was grateful to be alive — but the reality was that there were days when I felt like a freak of nature. Cancer treatment attacks every physical aspect of what it means to be a woman – sexuality and breast cancer are intertwined, for sure. The loss of breasts, the loss of hair, eyebrows and eyelashes, the loss of vibrant skin color, and the loss of a menstrual cycle all take their toll on your confidence. It’s hard not to feel down now and then.
It was depressing, watching the world around me of young, healthy women who were full of life, with rosy cheeks, long glossy hair and thick eyebrows compared to my pale skin, bald head and hairless face. Adding to that, I was newly married and had to show up at an office every day, so I wanted to look my best.
Like every experience in life, unless you live through it, you can’t fully understand all the nuances of a situation. Sylvia shamed me for being shallow, not realizing that I was experiencing a deep loss for my life before cancer.
The Feeling of Losing Sexuality from Breast Cancer Treatment is Real
Obviously, the loss of femininity, beauty and sexuality that result from chemo can present complex problems for women of any age, but it’s particularly challenging for young women, for several reasons:
- Society’s emphasis on youth and beauty;
- The very real risk of being unable to bear children in the future; and
- The fear of not being “marriage material;” and
- Having difficulty with sex when a woman is in her peak sexual years.
For some, every good thing about sex seems to be gone. Because breast cancer patients are taken off estrogen, an active sex life can diminish because your hormones don’t work; either you are no longer interested or it’s physically painful. Plus, cancer treatments make women feel unattractive as well as cause them to physically feel badly. Sexuality, breast cancer patients say, is last on the list of priorities for a while.
All this can be tough on a marriage. You don’t feel sexy; in fact, everything about you that once felt sexy is altered. But sexuality and breast cancer don’t have to be polar opposites.
Therapists recommend taking steps to get back on track. If sex is painful, use estrogen cream or other products to combat dryness, for example (ask your health care provider for recommendations). If you want to avoid sex altogether, you need to talk with your partner, which can take a couple to a better place by learning how to communicate openly for the first time.
Sexuality, Breast Cancer, and Single Women
For single women, sexuality after breast cancer presents its own challenges. There’s the concern that no one will ever love them because they are “damaged goods.” Some young women even debate taking chemo in case they won’t be able to bear children after treatment.
On top of these major concerns, when it comes to how we think of sexuality, breast cancer aside, society pressures women to look perfect — to get boob jobs, be bone thin and grow long hair.
Women need to challenge ourselves: To have more self-respect, realizing we are valuable, unique and stronger than we think. With or without eyebrows.
–by Julie Auton