Of All Things Cancer Took From Me, This Might Be the Worst
I don’t like dwelling on things I’ve lost since being diagnosed with a rare and deadly cancer in 2019. It feels ungrateful to complain when so many cancer patients don’t get the privilege of living. I am lucky, I know this. But cancer does take a toll. I became post-menopausal at 34, I lost my reproductive organs and will never have kids, my immune system is damaged, I am still neutropenic following chemotherapy and radiation, and my mental health is in a constant state of anxiety.
Despite all of that though, I am generally happier than I’ve ever been. Yes, cancer also has silver linings. A greater appreciation for life, clarity on how you want to live your life, plus, a renewed sense of love and gratitude for the world and everyone in it. Those aren’t nothing.
But the one thing I can’t get over losing … sex.
I think cancer patients don’t often talk about their sex lives because many are in the throes of treatment and just trying to make it to the next day. But once the dust has settled and you rejoin the world as a person, sex is often the thing you leave behind (along with body parts and random organs).
Prior to cancer my husband and I had amazing sex, like all the time. So much so, people would make fun of us for loving on each other so much. It was fun, easy, and enjoyable. Then cancer came. I lost my uterus, my ovaries, and 1/3 of my vaginal canal. What people don’t realize is that when you have sex your vaginal canal expands like an accordion. A symphony of hormones and elastic tissue work together to create an incredible sexual experience. Without that accordion, you’re left with a painful, useless tunnel that now only measures three to four inches in length. So right off the bat, you’ve got a storage issue.
The only time I’ve ever heard this spoken about publicly is when Camille Grammar from Real Housewives of Beverly Hills was lingerie shopping after her endometrial cancer and revealed to her friend that she too had a shortened vaginal canal from the radical hysterectomy. Her friend’s response was something like “that’s still plenty of room”. Except, it’s really not. It’s no longer elastic like an accordion, it’s static and damaged and has a sign that says “stay the fuck out” because anything that goes in there causes an immense stabbing, burning pain.
Besides losing length, you also lose what I’m going to call “vitality”. My tissue was blasted with radiation and poisoned with chemotherapy. I also had the privilege of undergoing brachytherapy, which is basically a dildo filled with radiation that is shoved into your broken, damaged cavity and causes you to cry uncontrollably. In other words, it’s a war zone. Obliterated. “A dead stump” as one doctor told me.
Like a plant in need of water, your reproductive tissue needs estrogen to survive, without it, it can wither and die. It’s called vaginal atrophy. The tissue becomes thin, brittle, and dry. It happens to many women post-menopause and it happens to cancer patients who lose their ovaries, endure pelvic radiation, or are on hormone suppressors (like breast cancer patients). All of this causes painful penetration — if you can even get it in (which lots of times, you cannot).
I haven’t spoken much about this, but sex after cancer is hard. Really, really hard. It’s a trifecta of menopause, butchered organs, and a nuclear bombing of your nether regions. You no longer have the parts you once did — but the desire is still there. It’s kind of like being blue-balled on a daily basis and then feeling guilty about feeling sorry for yourself because you’re supposed to be happy just to be alive! After all, you could be dead, right?
I’ve decided to speak openly about this because my husband tweeted about it to his 17k followers over the weekend (with my permission of course). He was excited because for the first time in 18 months we had something that finally resembled penetrative sex. And it was awesome. Afterward, we both lay in bed in shock, wondering out loud “Did that … was that … omg I think we … yessssss”.
I feel very lucky because my husband has never made me go faster than I wanted to go, he’s never complained about not having penetrative sex (I use the word “penetrative” because obviously we still have “sex” of other varieties), and has always reminded me that he loves me no matter what.
But losing the ease of sex takes a toll. No more ten-minute quickies — sex is a full-on production now. Lots of coconut oil, lube, suppositories, vibrators, pre-sex dilation, etc. Not only that, moments of passion are broken up by logistics, “Hold on I’ve gotta insert the lube egg (this is a little ball of lube that disintegrates inside your vagina and then leaks out and ruins your sheets) or “Where did the charger go for the vibrator?” (Vibration lessens the pain as the canal stretches). And don’t get me started on dilators … because I HATE THEM.
Wow, Taryn, this is really getting TMI, why are you writing about this?
Well, for the last 18 months I’ve felt pretty alone. I get jealous watching people on TV have sex, I look at women with their “hormones” and “working vaginas” and feel envy. I’m lucky because I can be 100% open and honest with my husband, and I know there are women out there who can’t. So I’ve decided to rip the Bandaid off. Sexual dysfunction after cancer is normal and there are no easy answers. My husband and I work at this EVERY. WEEKEND. We try new toys, new positions, new lubes, new rings … anything that could help us. Turns out the thing that helps the most is a mini-vibrator from Amazon that was about $14 (as I said, it dulls the pain). Who knew?
All of this is to say that cancer patients’ sexual needs are often put last by doctors (no doctors have helped me even though I ask about it every time) — mainly because they’re busy trying to save their patient’s life. I get it.
But I also want to get off.
If you’re having issues with sex after cancer please know you’re not alone. And my email is open to help you in any way :)