What Happens To Your Sex Life After Breast Cancer

February 9th 2016

Laura Donovan

Breast cancer survivors often endure a host of challenges: Chemotherapy, mastectomies, and hair loss are just some of the brutal side effects of treatment. The trouble doesn't stop after surviving the cancer either. Writer and breast cancer survivor Caitlin Kiernan recently detailed the challenges she faced in her sex life after beating the condition.



Breast cancer is the number one cancer affecting women of all backgrounds and the second most common cause of death from cancer among white, black, Asian/Pacific Islander, and American Indian/Alaska Native women, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Kiernan wrote in a recent Refinery29 piece that she experienced vaginal dryness during her recovery process, making it harder for her to have intercourse.

Dr. Jian Jenny Tang, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at New York City’s Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, told Kiernan that this, unfortunately, is not unusual for breast cancer victims because of the changes that happen in their bodies. Researchers also argue that cancer drugs can block estrogen production.

“Cancer surgery and treatments force women into early menopause,” Dr. Tang told Kiernan in an interview. “The ovaries stop producing estrogen, so the vaginal tissue gets thinner and the glands produce less mucus. It’s a big concern.”

The experience made Kiernan, who was single at the time, feel older than she really was and unsure of how to confront this reality in a moment of passion.

"I started getting nervous about how I was going to introduce lube into a romantic situation and feeling self-conscious about having a vagina that felt like 20 years my senior," she wrote. "Lucky for me, I had a positive first foray back into sex thanks to plenty of lube — but I wanted a longer-term fix."

She added in her Refinery29 piece that her gynecologist suggested getting an estrogen-based lubricant or an estrogen ring that restores vaginal moisture, but because she had an estrogen-sensitive cancer, her oncologist didn't want her to use either of these options. Kiernan wrote that FemiLift Laser, a laser solution for vaginal tightening, can also help women suffering from dryness, but unfortunately it is expensive (one session can cost more than $1,000) and not covered by her insurance.

Kiernan is far from alone in facing sexual challenges after breast cancer. A 2010 study published in the Journal of Sexual Medicine found that 70 percent of female breast cancer survivors faced sexual issues two years after their diagnosis. The research found that more than 80 percent of the women reported having a fulfilling sex life prior to fighting breast cancer.

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Dr. Christine Derzko, a professor of obstetrics and gynecology at the University of Toronto, who was not involved in the study, told CNN in 2010 that post-breast cancer sexual challenges are "a hidden issue that women have a real reluctance to discuss."

"We have to empower women to have the confidence to ask about this. And we have to enlighten physicians to the fact that it is an issue," she explained to CNN. "It's hard enough for any woman to express sexual concern. Add to that the problems of someone who has had breast cancer, and it becomes even more of an issue."

Other stigmas surrounding breast cancer.

Late last year, Los Angeles-based comedian Nikki Black wrote a viral XO Jane piece about the struggles she faced after surviving breast cancer and getting a mastectomy. Not only did she learn that breast cancer is an "extremely sexualized disease," after one person said he would miss his "second-favorite pair of boobs in Philly," but she felt that losing her breasts made her lose part of her identity. To reclaim it, she got tattoos over her mastectomy scars, an empowering move that many lauded.

"The tattooing was like therapy, a surgery for the soul," she wrote. "I walked away from that experience with a sore chest, minor nausea and an incredible feeling of lightness in spite of the tattoo aftereffects. At 25, I finally feel renewed and ready to work on the most important piece of all — myself."

RELATED: The Amazing Way This Breast Cancer Survivor Reclaimed Her Body