8 June 2018

Charity warns lack of support leaves women’s sex lives “side-lined”

Eight in 10 (79%) women diagnosed with breast cancer say they are unhappy with their sex life after the disease, according to new findings from Breast Cancer Care.

Significantly, this includes 83% of those diagnosed three or more years ago, indicating women continue to struggle for a very long time.

Of the over 800 women surveyed by Breast Cancer Care the majority (94%) reported a side effect from breast cancer treatment, which can include surgery, chemotherapy and hormone therapies (including tamoxifen), had stopped them having sex.

Some of the main side effects of treatment which have stopped women having sex include loss of libido (58%), low self-esteem (47%) and vaginal dryness (45%).

Shockingly, over two thirds (68%) of women with breast cancer say they were not told about the possible impact of treatment on sex and intimacy, and three quarters (76%) did not receive the support they needed from healthcare professionals.

Breast Cancer Care warns this worrying lack of vital information and support means women are left unprepared for extremely upsetting long-term emotional and physical side effects.

Sharon Brooker (44 from Peterborough) was diagnosed with breast cancer in August 2013 just a year after getting married and having her third child, and had a lumpectomy as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy. Two years after her diagnosis, Sharon separated from her husband for nearly 18 months. She says:

“Breast cancer completely changed the dynamic of our relationship to patient and carer. Physical changes like hair loss and scars meant I didn’t think I was attractive anymore – I remember looking in the mirror and breaking down in tears as I didn’t recognise myself. As a result, our sex life ground to a halt and two years after my diagnosis we separated.

“When I was diagnosed, nobody mentioned breast cancer could affect my relationship or sex life. And while I’m now back together with my husband, almost five years later it’s still not easy. There are ongoing side effects – like irritation on my breast and awful vaginal dryness – which can make sex painful. I find it depressing and hard to talk to my husband about.

“I now support women experiencing similar issues by volunteering with Breast Cancer Care. I don’t want anyone to go through what I went through, so I let them know they’re not alone - and I want everyone to know help is available.”

Samia al Qadhi, Chief Executive of Breast Cancer Care, says:

“These distressing figures paint a troubling picture of the everyday reality for countless women with breast cancer whose relationships and sex lives are side-lined – sometimes permanently.

“Going through treatment for breast cancer can be utterly traumatic and side effects can continue for years. Every day we hear from women who are struggling with dramatic scars, hair loss, and intimate physical changes, which can tatter body confidence and make sex uncomfortable, making it really difficult to have a satisfying sex life.

“Far too many women have not been told about the impact breast cancer and its treatment can have on their sex lives, leaving them suffering in silence - it is crucial this taboo is broken. The NHS must ensure everyone diagnosed with breast cancer has the opportunity to talk about sex, intimacy and altered body image to help get the support they need.”

Breast Cancer Care is here for anyone who needs support on sex, intimacy and body confidence after breast cancer. Visit www.breastcancercare.org.uk to find out about face-to-face support or call their expert nurses free on 0808 800 6000.

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For further information, please contact:

Georgia Tilley, Press Officer: georgia.tilley@breastcancercare.org.uk

0203 105 3360 / 07702 901 334

Notes to editors

Figures from a Breast Cancer Care survey. Fieldwork was undertaken online from 12-30 April 2018. Total sample size: 843 women, all of whom have had a primary diagnosis of breast cancer.

Total sample size for individual questions may vary due to women answering specific questions according to their personal experience.

Percentages have been rounded to the nearest whole number. For exact figures and full findings please contact Georgia Tilley.

Additional case study quotes

Mum-of-one Alex (31 from Pembury) was diagnosed with breast cancer twice in the space of a year and went through three surgeries, chemotherapy, radiotherapy, and is now on hormone therapy for at least five years. She says: 

“I was diagnosed with breast cancer in December 2016 after finding a lump, and again in September 2017. My husband has been so supportive during this nightmare, but intimacy between us isn’t what it used to be.

“The treatment, which grew more intense with each diagnosis, immensely impacted my body confidence. My lovely long hair is gone, my reconstructed breasts feel alien to my body and I just don’t feel pretty anymore. There are other, more physical barriers too – chemo left me with a chronic skin condition making sex very painful, and my current treatment has triggered early menopause, so I’m always extremely tired.

“Although my Oncologist mentioned side effects of treatment may make sex “uncomfortable”, there wasn’t much detail. It felt like a selfish topic to bring up when my life was on the line, but these issues have a very real impact on people with breast cancer and I wish there was more awareness and support out there.”

About Breast Cancer Care

Breast Cancer Care is the only specialist UK wide charity providing support for women, men, family and friends affected by breast cancer. We’ve been caring for them, supporting them, and campaigning on their behalf since 1973.

Today, we continue to offer a unique range of support including reliable information, one-to-one support over the phone and online from nurses and people who’ve been there. We also offer local group support across the UK.

From the moment someone notices something isn’t right, through to their treatment and beyond, we’re there to help people affected by breast cancer feel more in control. www.breastcancercare.org.uk