Healing your sexual self after breast cancer
Sex after cancer. We often hear from doctors, therapists, or friends that you need to find out what feels good to you. But what does that even mean!? How do you find out what feels good? How do you start this journey to regain positive esteem?
100% of individuals diagnosed with breast cancer experience an impact on their intimacy, sensuality and/or sexuality. But don’t worry, I have some tips to help!
Yes, you are not alone in this struggle. When there is a shift in our physical and emotional sense of self, there is also a shift in how we connect to ourselves and others. These reasons are both biological and psycho-social.
Surgery and cancer treatment cause biological and hormonal changes that can lead to vaginal dryness, hot flashes and low libido. Hair and weight loss, skin changes and sensory changes such as fatigue, weakness and pain are other side effects that all change how your body feels.
It’s not hard to understand why you’d have a negative emotional response, and why many women feel decreased self-esteem, body-esteem and sexual-esteem.
Combined, this can feel like an insurmountable problem. If you’re experiencing any of these issues it can lead to feeling a loss of femininity, lack of motivation, anxiety, and depression.
There are steps you can take to help reclaim this part of your life for yourself, and for your partner. As a sex therapist, I use the principles of Sensate Therapy, which guides people through reconnecting with their bodies moving the away from their genital and breast areas. These exercises enable getting to which areas of your body feel the pleasure. Ultimately, they help regain feelings of connectedness to your sexual self and a sense of desire. This is great whether or not you’re with a partner!
Working through these exercises is also relaxing, they will reduce fatigue, nausea, and have a
plethora of other positive side effects.
The exercises take time and it’s important to get in the right headspace. We’re going to cover the very first steps in this article. You can do exercise one repeatedly, and I recommend that you do! It might take multiple times before you figure out which parts of your body are sensing the most pleasure.
Exercise One. Before you get started, you’ll want to set the mood. Get ready for a relaxing, warm shower. Light a candle and dim the lights in your bathroom. While in the shower, breathe in for four counts and out for four counts. Do this several times. You’ll feel calmer and more connected to your body. After showering, put on lotion (some clients enjoy the warming lotion that you can get from any pharmacy). Then head to bed! Get in naked under just the top sheet or light blanket. Return to breathing by counts of four, and try to connect with how the sheet feels against your skin, being mindful of what specific areas feel like against the weight of the sheet.
Do any of these areas feel pleasure from the sensation? Pain? Discomfort? Pay careful attention to how each part of your body feels. Relax and enjoy this noticing of your body in a new way.
Sex therapists also utilize body mapping. The goal of body mapping is to effectively communicate specific ideas and feelings that manifest as you think about certain areas of your body. Instead of thinking about the body as a whole, this process reconnects us with specific body parts. This exercise is conducted in a variety of ways depending on the therapist. I like to have my clients (this is an easy thing for you to do at home) write out words and narratives that come to mind on a printed image of a body. This helps tell me the story of their relationship to their body, and you might be surprised to learn what you think about yourself! And, this is another thing you can share with a partner, which creates an open space for honest and vulnerable conversations.
This is just the first exercise. Each of the following exercises builds upon this one, and I’ll be sharing more of them here soon. The experience of this and what feels good is unique to the individual. Those with partners also have different exercises where partners can feel included in the process. We’ll share those in another post- stay tuned!
BIO: Rachel Hoffman is a licensed clinical social worker, who specializes in issues related to sexuality, intimacy, and interpersonal relationships. She is earning her PhD in Human
Sexuality from Widener University and writing her dissertation on the association between Phubbing and intimacy in monogamous, romantic relationships. She practices in Manhattan at Union Square Practice.
Rachel is the author of Dating and Mating in a Techno Driven World: Understanding how technology is helping and hurting relationships.
She is featured in numerous publications including Playboy, Insider, Bustle, Cosmopolitan and runs the Instagram account @sexdochoff. She also published an article in Cure Magazine about the impact of a Cancer Diagnosis on Sexuality.
A note from Rachel: It is impossible to explain the depth and breadth of sex therapy and how it can be useful for you. I am hoping that this helps in some way and leads to a much bigger and needed conversation.