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 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.
As Feb. 4 marks World Cancer Day, it's the perfect time to dive deeper into this topic and learn how to reclaim intimacy during, or after, breast cancer.
Read on to learn about how breast cancer can impact sex, how to manage sexual side effects and more — including opinions and tips from experts.
How breast cancer can impact sex
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, psychologist, sex therapist and educator, 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."
That's where DeCoteau believes Rethink Breast Cancer comes into play. The charity 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 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.
"And so this is why support, research and connection about this topic without judgement is so important."
How to manage sexual side effects after breast cancer
According to a 2022 study, about 50 per cent of breast cancer patients experienced sexual difficulties, while 45 per cent reported pain.
Other side effects can 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 said. "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, vaginal moisturizers, pillows, toys and lube are great options to enhance the experience.
"Respect your body for where it's at, and give yourself time and space to get to know your post-cancer body."MJ DeCoteau
"And don't be discouraged if you didn't need to use toys or lube before breast cancer," said Cullen. "It doesn't mean there's anything wrong with you or your partner."
Respecting and embracing your new body
Breast cancer takes a toll both mentally and physically. And 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," MJ DeCoteau, founder and executive director at Rethink Breast Cancer, told Yahoo Canada.
Both DeCoteau and Cullen recommend getting to know your new body in a step-by-step process.
The first step is reconnecting with your body as an area of safety, comfort and privacy. After, 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.
Resources and advice
DeCoteau wants breast cancer fighters to know that they aren't alone on this journey and 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," she said.
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 like lube, moisturizers and other self-care products to help your sexual, mental and physical health.
"It might require self-advocacy, but it'll be worth it. Recovery is not linear," Cullen added.