Sunday, 11 March 2018

Weekly Discussion Summary ~ Intimacy and Relationships

It can feel like breast cancer robs us of our womanhood, profoundly changing our intimate relationships - some deepen, some become fragile, some break.

In this week's discussion, we shared how our breast cancer diagnosis had impacted on partner relationships and intimacy.

Physically, breast cancer treatment brings many changes in addition to the obvious one - surgery to remove the cancer. Treatments such as chemotherapy and radiotherapy have long term side effects such as fatigue and pain. Ongoing hormone treatments and invasive surgery also impact on our reproductive system and sexual health inducing early or prolonged menopausal symptoms such as a loss of libido and vaginal dryness, which can lead to painful sexual intercourse.

Breast cancer calls into question our relationship with our bodies, impacting on how we feel as emotional and sexual beings; we are left confused, vulnerable and some of us shared that we felt unattractive and undesirable. An understanding partner may cease to want intimacy for fear of hurting us; a less understanding one may simply walk away. We struggle to know how to communicate. Many of us mourn the loss of libido and our once satisfying sex lives feel like a thing of the past, and although in many instances we continue to have a loving relationship with our partner, the lack of intimacy makes us feel very sad.

For those of us with a partner, some receive strong support, a partner who loves their new body without question, and with patience, a continuing sexual relationship that remains satisfying. However, many of us reported the opposite: a partner who was no longer interested in us sexually, a partner who did not want to talk about sex, and, for some of us a partner who walked away from us when we were at our most vulnerable.

Single women face many challenges when meeting someone new, starting with how to tell them about the cancer. They’re going to find out someday when intimacy reveals a body that is different. Whether we are scarred, flat chested, lopsided or reconstructed, our bodies are healing and hurting, and our head is often full of emotional pain. However, for those who had overcome these hurdles, the experience of intimacy with a new partner can restore their faith in their body’s ability to feel pleasure.

Couples counselling may help floundering relationships to flourish again. Some women had met new partners following breakups just before, during, or after treatment. These women bring hope to those of us seeking new relationships, telling us that the right partner won’t mind how our body looks but is little comfort to those of us struggling to accept our new bodies and are daunted at the prospect of being on our own forever.

Communication, self-compassion and self-help can help us to maintain our relationships in the longer term. Our diagnosis impacts on our partners too. We need to somehow find away to adapt individually and together in the face of the changes that breast cancer imposes on us. We heard that lubricants and medications for vaginal dryness and pain are available, via GP, over the counter and online, and can make a huge difference.

Our discussion included women with primary and secondary diagnoses, and for the latter, treatment may be continuous and ongoing. Some reported a strengthening of relationships through the shared experience of bad news, bringing them closer as they seek an intensity of experience with their partners as in all areas of life. Communication about what really matters can become easier. Or, the opposite may be true, with what really needs to be said remaining under the surface.

Whether we were single, had an understanding partner, or our relationship was floundering, we shared an experience of loss and adjustment, not only during our active treatment, but many years afterwards. Loving ourselves may be difficult at the best of times, but when we’ve been through the trauma of a serious life-threatening disease such as cancer, we must, in our different ways, mourn the loss of the woman we used to be and the woman we thought we might become. Holding ourselves in self-love and believing we are worthy of the love of another may be helped by being kind to ourselves, giving ourselves little treats and big ones, from a new lipstick to a makeover and photo-shoot.

Whatever our experience of intimate relationships, it is clear that the support and sharing of our experiences and feelings was hugely valuable, even for those who found it too painful to participate. We learned practical ideas to help and found out that none of us are alone in our struggle.

This article may be of interest:

If you are a woman living in the UK with a breast cancer diagnosis and you would like to join our private group, please send us a private message via our facebook page

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