Lynn, age 50+, phoned to order several of my books and she told me her story of trying to reclaim her sexuality after cancer. I encouraged Lynn to share her story with you here:
I was diagnosed with cancer in my mid 30’s and was given a grim prognosis of 3-5 years to live. Thanks to medical research trials and multiple treatments, I have survived over 3 times that long. Through the years I have met other cancer survivors who are struggling to deal with their questions about sexuality after cancer.
Part of my cancer treatment was a stem cell transplant that involved both chemotherapy and radiation which put me into premature menopause. I had a medical condition which made me susceptible to blood clots, so hormone replacement in any form was not an option.
The resulting sexual problems were sudden and unexpected and left me with feelings of grief and loss that were hard to put into words. At times I felt like “You should just be thankful to be alive,” but I wasn’t ready to give up my sexuality.
I began to search for information. One cancer newsletter’s “Ask the Doctor” column confirmed that many readers had asked the same questions about sexual problems following this particular treatment. The American Cancer Society has a publication titled, “Sexuality and Cancer.” Both of these resources mentioned that there are many women who cannot take hormone replacement therapy and suggested that people should discuss “options for facilitating sexuality” with their doctors.
When I asked my oncologist for help, he was too embarrassed to talk about sexual problems and practically ran out of the exam room. He could have at least referred me to another medical resource. Although we passed the turn of the century, some medical providers are still in the “dark ages” when it comes to addressing the sexual problems of cancer survivors.
I went to a cancer survivor’s conference at a large medical center in another city. One of the sessions was about cancer and sexuality. I sat next to a woman who had been through treatment identical to mine and also had the same blood clotting disorder which ruled out HRT. We were both blessed with partners that did not walk out the door when the cancer diagnosis arrived, but we missed the giving involved in making love to our partner and meeting their needs for intimacy as much as the pleasure we had derived from it ourselves.
Some people came to the group session accompanied by their partners - the standard response from the partner without cancer was “I’m just glad my partner is alive,” but the cancer survivors were not content with that. They went on to express their deep emotions and struggles. “First I was diagnosed, then I had treatment - I’m thankful I survived, but I am still working through the loss of my sexuality.”
The oncology professional who was the group facilitator listened, and could see that this was an important subject that needed to be given more attention in the future. I left feeling like at last we were heard, but I was still lacking practical information and resources.
I am now over 50 and my cancer is in a durable remission, but I was beginning to believe that I was probably “too old” to be hopeful about ever being sexually active again. I lacked the courage to ask another Dr. or medical professional for help to address sexual problems.
I’m so glad I found your blog - I read the post “a man asks about sex after prostate cancer” and was impressed by the personal interest you took in responding to his questions.
I went to your website to order your book and read, “Joy isn’t age-bound. Neither is sexuality or fitness.” Discovering that you have also faced challenges as a result of two car accidents and refused to give up was an encouragement to me. Your statement, “I had to get back to having a life”, really sums up where I am at currently. Your story inspired me with a “spark of hope” and I also found the resources that I need to begin working on regaining physical fitness and sexual function!
Lynn, thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts. When you told me about your oncologist bolting out of the room when you asked about sexuality, I was shocked and outraged. Sexuality and intimacy are so much a part of what binds us to our partner and makes us fully human. How can doctors not understand this or help us reclaim that vital part of our being when we ask for help?
I know doctors get very little training in sexuality, and I've written about this here. Fortunately, there are some wonderful sex therapists and sex educators who are doing a great job in this arena, and I encourage you to find one of these in your area.
I am so happy that you survived cancer, and I wish you the best success reclaiming the joy of your sexuality. Please keep us posted about what you do and what you learn.