Caroline was diagnosed with breast cancer in June 2011. She talks about the effects that treatment had on her confidence and sex life and how she found the help and support she needed.
When I went to the GP about a small lump I’d found in my right breast, I thought it would be nothing and was told it was likely to just be a cyst. As my mother had had breast cancer I thought I might as well have a proper check up at an NHS hospital. I was left in shock when my mammogram came back clear but they told me they had found something on the ultrasound. When they confirmed it was breast cancer I was numb. I didn’t cry. Cancelling my holiday to Costa Rica seemed a lot more upsetting at the time! I was obviously in shock.
Treatment was tough. Chemotherapy crashed me into an early menopause and made me feel like I’d aged to 100 overnight. I suddenly had hot sweats, vaginal dryness, became bloated and worst of all my joints seized up – I struggled to pick my post up off the floor every day.
It was a huge challenge living with these side effects and I had to stop my usual routines and put everything on hold. Before cancer I had loads of energy as I was a keen runner, fit and slender, so losing my body and mojo was awful. Most women go into the menopause gently over years not overnight and none of my friends had been through it yet.
A hidden effect
I was happy to talk to friends, family and my breast care nurse about the menopausal changes, yet I didn’t feel I could speak about losing my sexual identity. It was a very important part of me – I was in my prime, a confident woman at 47. Not many people realise your sex life can be affected after a breast cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows. I continued for a long time to keep my experience of this hidden.
After all the changes to my body I felt ugly, lost my self confidence, and became really shy – definitely not like me! I was also exhausted. I had no energy and was aware I had lost interest in the opposite sex. I put my social and sex life on hold for eight months. Being single I felt really alone and was worried I would never be able to date again or find someone to be with. But I didn’t feel comfortable asking for the information and support I needed.
Speaking to a sex therapist
After finally revealing my fears to a young chemo nurse at London Bridge Hospital where I was having my treatments, I was referred to a sex therapist called Emma Wareing at the hospital who totally changed my life! I didn’t realise I could have four free sessions with her as a private patient – she said she mainly looked after the men on the heart attack wards who have sexual problems.
I was recommended a low dose of HRT by my oncologists which really helped improve all my menopausal symptoms. However this isn’t suitable for everyone with breast cancer, unfortunately. It was my wonder drug and with Emma's support and advice I got better.
Emma helped me start to think differently about my experience and reminded me there wasn’t anything wrong with me. My confidence was so low at the time this dramatically improved my outlook. After listening to all my fears and passing me the odd tissue to dry up my tears, Emma helped me realise I was still desirable. After speaking to someone about the worries I had been keeping bottled up, I felt so relieved and liberated. I started to look forward to the future.
Emma was so helpful that she came and gave a talk to my Pink Buddies support group who are breast cancer survivors treated at London Bridge Hospital. It was certainly an emotional night and it felt great that the ladies started to open up about such a taboo subject.
Accepting my new body
I’ve now learnt to accept my new body with my scars and my new short hairstyle. I’m dating again and am hopeful I will meet someone I want to settle down with. I want to encourage other women diagnosed with breast cancer – whether single, dating or in a long-term relationship – to talk about the impact cancer can have on sex.
There are so many people experiencing similar challenges and it’s so important to get the right help and support. It’s not all about swinging from the chandeliers again for everyone, maybe just being gentle and intimate with your partner and getting the connection back. Don’t be afraid to speak to your breast care nurse or ask about professional sex therapists.
It was so exciting to model in Breast Cancer Care’s London fashion show on 1 October at the start of Breast Cancer Awareness Month. It was amazing to join other men and women who’ve had a diagnosis to strut our stuff on the catwalk and show that cancer is not stopping us from living our lives.
Rachel Rawson Clinical Nurse Specialist at Breast Cancer Care says…
‘Whether you’re single, in a relationship or embarking on a new one, you may feel very anxious and uncertain about sexual relationships after treatment for breast cancer. Treatment can have physical and emotional effects that can affect sex and sexual desire.
‘Also changes to your body you’ve experienced may affect your confidence and feelings about yourself as a woman. You may be anxious about your first sexual experience following your diagnosis, or worried things will not be the same as before.
‘All of these worries are normal and it can take time for your confidence to return and for you to feel comfortable about having sex again. How long it takes is very individual and it’s important to do what feels right for you. Breast Cancer Care can provide support and information for people during this time.’