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Sex, Anti Depressants And Hot Flushes: Things You Learn About Your Relationship When You Have Cancer In Your 20s
The Debrief: Dealing with a life threatening illness is difficult enough, but how on earth do you rebuild your relationship after getting a double mastectomy at 28? Primary school teacher Flo talks us through the basics.
When I was at university thinking about all the things I might get in the next ten years, breast cancer didn’t rank very highly on my list. A house, a well-paid job as department head in a primary school, a fiancé and a baby, sure. But cancer? That sort of stuff just didn’t happen to people like me. I don’t smoke, I don’t really drink, I’ve run two marathons, I go out with a personal trainer and I’m a vegan - the vast majority of decisions I made were to make sure I stayed at the pinnacle of health. And healthy people don’t get life-threatening illnesses. Well, I’m still waiting on the house, the pay-rise and the ring, but I was diagnosed with breast cancer 16 months ago.
I was handed this utterly unwelcome (that feels like the understatement to end all understatements) piece of news completely by fluke after a cyclist careered into me whilst I was out running. His handle bar left a nasty bruise on my breast and ribs on the left side of my body and, whilst the bruises on my ribs seemed to disappear within a week, the one on my boob remained angry looking and purple for nearly a month. Eventually Tom, my boyfriend insisted that I book a doctor’s appointment, which I only really did to shut him up.
In the end, I was told I had breast cancer which had spread to both breasts and was at risk of spreading to my lymph nodes. I would have to have both radio and chemotherapy and a double mastectomy was highly recommended with further surgery afterwards to reconstruct my breasts, as well as hormonal therapy to drop the levels of oestrogen in my body that would bring on an early (although temporary) menopause. I watched Tom’s brave face in the doctor’s appointment as he asked all the right questions and made notes on his iPhone without hearing any of it - it was like all the air had been sucked out of the room and I was hanging lifelessly in a vacuum. He held my hand as we left the hospital and my head in the taxi ride home, but I didn’t hear a thing. Not until we got home, he put me to bed and I heard him crying in our front room.
That’s the only time I’ve heard Tom break throughout this whole process and from then on he’s been there to support me, whether it was silently bringing me cups of tea and covering me up when I was too depressed to get out of bed, or insisting we go on bike rides and weekend trips to his nan’s caravan in Dorset to get my mind off things, he always seemed to know what to say to me at the right time.
Everyone knows that the treatment to deal with breast cancer is shit, but what I wasn’t prepared for was the weird difficult places your sex life goes when you’ve had breast cancer in your 20s. Here’s what we’ve learned, clumsily, in just over a year.
Your sex drive takes a battering, but you get through it
The doctor explained that the trauma of the surgery as well as the Tamoxifen - the hormonal treatment I was taking - would likely make my desire to have sex plummet and me and Tom spoke for hours about how we were going to deal with it, deciding that it should be me to initiate sex when I was ready as he was ‘always up for it anyway’ and that we wouldn’t rush into it if it didn’t feel right for me. When I think about how supportive he was during this period and how willing he was to let me set my boundaries, I can’t express how grateful I am to have him in my life. We read the books, and spoke to other cancer patients in forums and we felt like we were ready to deal with any eventuality as a united unit. Any eventuality, that is, except Tom not wanting to have sex with me.
About six months into the treatment, I felt ready to try having sex for the first time - but nothing happened. Eventually, after many failed attempts at asking him what was going on, he admitted that all of the trauma I’d been going through had taken its toll on him and he was now on antidepressants, which had pretty much robbed him of a sex drive. I was shocked and upset at first, but we managed to work through it together and only a month after that - when he had come off the pills - we managed to have sex for the first time. We’re still not where we once were and probably do it three or four times a month at the moment, but we’re both really proud that we’ve managed to salvage some of what we had considering how much we’ve both been through.
Sometimes your friends might know what you need more than you do
I told my friends what Tom and I were going through and, after we’d spent hours one long evening talking through all of my options and telling me everything was going to be ok, I thought that was that. The thing was, they had other ideas and two of my best friends met up independently to discuss if there was anything they could do to try and re-build my sex life for me so I didn’t lose Tom forever on top of everything else I was going through. They decided to go to a high street erotic store and make me a ‘kinky kit’ hoping that it would give me some inspiration to inject some excitement into my sex life. But when they came to my house and gave it to me, I felt completely humiliated and misunderstood - part of the problem was that both me and Tom were feeling under too much pressure to perform, how was this intense box of tricks going to help? But after a lot of tears and even more chatting, they convinced me to take to box home and, sure enough, just knowing that it was in my side cabinet gave me the confidence to initiate sex with Tom again only a week later. We even used some of the toys. It was an amazing lesson for me because it showed that my friends sometimes know me better than I know myself and it was important to trust them - even if it felt like this was something I was going through all on my own.
Letting your boyfriend see your boobs again will be weird
I had reconstructive surgery after my mastectomy to try and make them look as much like ‘normal’ breasts as possible, but they certainly don’t look like they used to. Before cancer, I had perky, 30 DD boobs which had always been one of my (and Tom’s) favourite part of my body. They were a massive aspect of our sex life and I used to love him biting my nipples and playing with my boobs - I’d go as far as saying I’d need him to do it for me to come. After the surgery though, my reconstructed nipples looked weird and my breasts were much smaller than they had been and had a lumpy texture, so I struggled with how they looked for a long time and my confidence took a battering. It’s only recently that I felt comfortable enough to take off my bra and show him what I look like now.
Your mum is the only person who will truly sympathise with your hot flushes
I never thought I’d end up discussing my sex life with my mum, but one of the biggest hurdles to overcome in bed was the constant hot flushes. Ironically, I always used to sigh whenever my mum used to complain about hot flushes when she was going through the menopause, but boy do I have sympathy with her after Tamoxifen brought about an early menopause for me. It’s like your whole body is on fire and I certainly have more sympathy with anyone going through the menopause for real. Me and my mum would talk about it for hours, which was amazing because we were able to support each other through some of the same symptoms and crazy hormones. I’ll never forget my little brother coming home to find both me and my mum, drinking iced-tea in the middle of winter with our legs hanging out of the window to cool ourselves down from a hot flush. There are some things that you don’t expect to go through at the same time as your mum, but there have been so many products and herbal treatments that she’s been able to point out to me to make the process of the early-onset menopause a bit easier to deal with.
Flo’s top tip for helping your relationship survive cancer:
Although all of these things are hurdles that you will have to cross, it’s important to make sure that you speak to each other about your sexual needs and desires throughout the treatment and don’t let it become another elephant in the room you’re not able to discuss. Sex is an important part of any relationship and it’s OK to prioritise it. Just take your time, listen to your body and don’t feel the pressure to do anything you don’t want to do before you’re ready.
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Picture: Eylul Aslan
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