Being intimate again after surviving cancer can be a difficult journey. Three survivors speak to Noor-Jehan Yoro Badat about their experiences
I FEEL SEXY AND SEX IS NOW MORE INTENSE
Tracey Derrick, 50
A photographer who was diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2008, she lives on a farm in the Swartland with her two daughters.
I was shocked by the diagnosis, even though I knew I had cancer. You feel those changes but you still want to deny it. You still can’t believe that it’s happening to you.
I had no partner at the time. I had split up with my partner of 10 years – the father of my children – a year before my cancer.
My family and close friends were also shocked. They were there for me in different ways and very practical.
I underwent a mastectomy on my right breast, had all right-arm lymph nodes removed and went through six months of chemotherapy. I’ve also taken Tamoxifen for five years.
I have been in remission now for three and half years. The first time I saw myself with one breast, I felt acceptance. What was important and a relief, was that the cancer had been cut out. I felt determined to heal the scar well, keep fit and look after myself. Exactly one year after the mastectomy I had a tattoo done. I love tattoos and I already had one down the right side of my back, so it felt natural to extend it forward over my chest. It put a presence where there was an absence. I love my chest – not breast anymore . It feels androgynous. There were the challenges of wanting to be shy, but finding my chest and tattoo sexy.
But it took a while to resume intimacy. For one thing, I didn’t have a partner. And, then, I was so focused on my survival and my children that I was emotionally closed to a new relationship. My daughters and close friends satisfy many different parts of myself. Because of them, I haven’t had to look for a relationship.
I am not in a relationship right now, but after cancer I’ve had casual sex three times with friends.
I think that I’ve had a very active sexual life my whole life. And then came the split with my partner and then cancer. I wasn’t ready to jump into any strange person. I had to deal with my cancer, my treatment and getting my health back.
Two years after my cancer, I was able to resume lovemaking. I hadn’t before I didn’t feel sexual.It wasn’t because of my chest, but because of my core energy.
I have always been bisexual and more involved with women than men. Cancer moved me more in the direction of women again. They know where you are coming from and can discuss themselves.
But now that it’s three and a half years down the line, I’m open again to a person, male or female.
The first time for me was great, intimate and re-affirming. She knew about my mastectomy, had seen my tattoos and work on my cancer, and we had swum together. It was almost ignored and it wasn’t an issue.
I feel more in control now. I don’t need sex so often as Tamoxifen interferes eostrogen production. Menopause also came quickly. I think with that is a feeling of not needing to reproduce, so sex also takes on a new meaning.
Cancer made me understand the reality of dying, so lovemaking has a new intensity and pleasure. I don’t know if it would be the same with people in a continuous relationship through cancer. It isn’t easy to be open and trusting.
It took three years for my real core energy and faith in myself to return, and not to feel so tired all the time and to struggle with my creativity. But that feels alive again only this year, as does my sexuality and vibrancy.
It was always there, because I am an extreme energy person, but it really has only resurfaced now.
MY NEW WIFE UNDERSTANDS AND WE HAVE GOOD SEX
Ismail-Ian Fife, 49
A financial manager from Cape Town, Fife is the CEO of Can-Sir, a non-profit organisation for men with cancer.
I was diagnosed with prostrate cancer in June 2004, after a whole year of being misdiagnosed and treated for kidney problems.
I had radiation for three weeks and hormonal treatment for nine months. I went into remission for almost a year and three months. But it came back in March 2008.
I went for three months of chemotherapy, experienced hair loss, sore lips, dry lips and other symptoms that you get with chemo. I’ve been in remission now for about three years.
Initially I didn’t tell my family about the cancer. I hid it from my wife for almost two years.
I guess it’s a man thing, not wanting to burden your family. It was naïve of me to keep it a secret.
One day my wife followed me to the hospital and walked in while I was having the chemo. It took her about 30 seconds to look me in the eye, say it was over and leave.
I know it sounds a bit harsh, but I suppose that because I had been hiding it from her for two years, she probably thought what else could I be hiding. The trust was broken.
Before the cancer, we had been trying to have more children. I knew this wasn’t possible because of my treatments, and I didn’t told her. All that time she thought she wasn’t fertile.
By not telling her, I had also made her feel that she was at fault that we weren’t having sex, that I couldn’t have an erection. The erections were few and far between because of the treatment.
For six months, we tried to get things back on track, but by then she felt differently. We got divorced.
But today we are even better friends than before. I remarried, to a younger woman. My intimate life is wonderful. My wife understands what I’ve been through and she helps out with our organisation, Can-Sir.
I have good sex now because the chemicals have worked themselves out of my system. I have full-on intercourse.
But my sex drive isn’t what it used to be. Because of the treatments and hormonal changes, it doesn’t phase me if I go without sex for two weeks.
It’s difficult sometimes, as my wife is a young woman. When she is in the mood for it, it can take longer to get me in the mood.
I do feel good that I can have sex now. I did feel inadequate. Before the cancer, I could have sex without any hesitation. Then I became wary and conscious of it.
But, as you become accustomed to it, so does your partner. You begin to learn what time of the month is best. Viagra helped to improve intimacy in the bedroom.
After a time, when I started getting normal sensations again, I weaned myself off Viagra.
My advice to men who are going through this is to speak to their partners. Let them know what the problem is and don’t assume that they know what is wrong with you.
Men need to be more open and confront the issue or our cancer can develop into further problems. The greatest fear is no longer being able to satisfy somone, so we try to hide it. You and your partner need to work it out together.
Cultural issues also play a big role in why men keep quiet . But you can have a normal life again. With prostate cancer, if detected early, the chances of survival is 100 percent. So men need to have themselves checked regularly. Go for the digital rectal examination every six months, and once a year take a Prostate Specific Antigen test.
AFTERWARDS MY HUSBAND ABUSED ME AND THEN LEFT
Raynolda Makhutle, 55
From Kagiso in Krugersdorp, she is a cervical cancer survivor, a motivational speaker and educates people in the townships on cancer.
Receiving the diagnosis in 1998 that I had cervical cancer was the worst news for me. Since the age of 16, I’d always had womb complications. The doctor used to just give me tablets. Even having my children was difficult. At 34, I got myself sterilised because I was afraid to have more children.
When I turned 40, I decided to go for a second opinion. This doctor told me to go for a pap smear, a procedure that was foreign to me. Our family doctor had never suggested it. When the results came back, I was told that the cancer was advancing and that it could be removed. I went for surgery, but a test after my three-month check-up confirmed that I had three tumours on both my ovaries.
It was difficult to accept. I knew nothing about cancer except that it was a killer disease. I had a hysterectomy. Among African people, when a woman loses her womb, she is stigmatised and believed not to be a complete woman.
I suffered in silence. I couldn’t talk to anyone about it. Cancer is something that our people don’t talk about openly with their partners. It’s a journey that you walk alone.
Men need to be educated about the disease, and they need to get out of their cocoon of ego. They should be husbands, lovers and partners.
When a woman loses her ovaries, it doesn’t make her less of a woman and men should understand that.
Only my doctor, my husband – who wasn’t working at the time – and my two daughters knew about my condition. My husband began to abuse me and left me immediately afterwards. I was no longer enough of a woman for him.
I went through the trauma alone with my mother. It was a difficult time. My faith saw me through it.
I went through 13 months of chemotherapy and five months of radiation. It was a hard journey and my medical aid was depleted. Back then I worked as a banker. I went through our savings, investments and provident fund to get treatment.
When my husband returned, I took him back. I thought perhaps he had been afraid so I forgave him. But it was very difficult to be intimate with him. I wasn’t prepared for it because no one had counselled me. I could not enjoy it. I was afraid. I was having sex for the sake of doing it. It wasn’t a nice experience. It didn’t help that he wasn’t gentle with me.
The fear was in my mind, and not being prepared I was conscious of it. I never felt like I gave it my all or enjoyed it like I used to. I had such mixed emotions. I thought maybe he had brought the cancer and had given it to me. He was also a very aggressive and jealous man.
When my husband died of a heart attack, I didn’t want another relationship. As a woman I am very attractive and I look after myself, but the moment a man approaches me about going out, the thought of sex goes through my head and it puts me off. So I end it right then and there. I don’t even want to be touched.
My lady friends tell me that I can be with a wonderful man but I’m just not ready. There were a number of things that made me not enjoy my marriage and sex life.
But my advice to others is that there is life after cancer. Don’t allow it to own your life. If you feel you want to enjoy sex, then do it. Let it go. It’s not a death sentence.
You can have a second chance if there is someone you love. I would have wanted to have a love life and be excited about love again. I don’t know if I can one day, but I don’t want to say I won’t. You do get lonely but my faith in God helps me so much. I’ve been in remission now for about 15 years.
STRUGGLING WITH THIS? READ THIS BOOK
In their book Sexy Ever After – Intimacy Post-Cancer, Patty Brisben and Dr Keri Peterson offer their tips on achieving the best possible sex life after cancer.
It is available digitally on Amazon Kindle, Apple iBooks, Barnes & Noble Nook and Kobo.
Authors Patty Brisben and Keri Peterson offer their tips on achieving the best possible sex life after cancer.
• Having sex regularly will rev up your sex drive and increases the production of testosterone in your system. Testosterone is the
hormone that’s most responsible for your libido levels.
• Having more non-sexual physical contact, too, can combat poor body image, another issue cancer survivors struggle with. Partners need to shower survivors with hugs and kisses. For those struggling with cancer - your partner is at a bit of a loss right now so give them reassurances by initiating sultry smooches, or some cuddling sessions.
• Other things that can be a huge turn on is helping with the housework, kind words or pleasant surprises.
• Create intimate rituals that can make you feel closer such as sharing a cup of coffee every morning, giving each other foot massages while watching TV, or sharing a soak in the tub.
• Taking care of your body can make you feel sexier. Eat mindfully to feel stronger, slimmer and healthier. Exercise can reduce stress levels, help you relax, strengthen your body, and also combat many of the side effects associated with cancer treatments. Exercise releases endorphins that raise libido levels.
• Dressing up can also be confidence and libido-boosting for both men and women
• Be sexually adventurous. A recent survey found that couples willing to engage in new sexual behaviours were more likely to be satisfied with both their relationship and their sex life. Try the following: lingerie shop together, watch an erotic film, read aloud from a book of erotica, have sex in every single room of the house, have a frantic, midday quickie or give each other lap dances.
• Chase those rushing endorphins by trying exciting activities like white water rafting, paintballing, skydiving. You’ll probably want to celebrate your continued existence with a high-octane romp in the bedroom.
• Strengthen your pubococcygeus or PC muscles by doing kegel exercises which can help both men and women manage side effects like urinary incontinence, and can also make your orgasms more intense.
• When you’re suffering from low self-esteem due to your cancer treatments, or self-doubt due to your inability to fix everything for your partner, saying, “I love you” can make all the difference in the world.
•Many of us have a sexual script that is used to signal that one or the other is interested in sex. For example, some couples start with kissing and caressing the breasts. Sexual scripts can be interrupted by treatments such as a mastectomy or even painful radiation scars. Couples can work together to redefine sex, and find other areas of the body that work equally as well to signal the beginning of a romantic romp.
Do you feel alone going through your cancer treatments? Get in touch with People Living With Cancer. See their website, www.plwc.org.za