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Navigating Intimacy and Sex After a Breast Cancer Diagnosis
BCRF investigators share common symptoms and their advice for talking with your doctor.
Valentine’s Day is a celebration of love and intimacy, but a breast cancer diagnosis can make it feel like anything but.
Once she gets beyond the words “You have breast cancer,” a newly diagnosed patient faces a barrage of information. “One day at a time” turns into weeks and months of treatments, scans and follow-ups. Navigating life after breast cancer comes with its own complications.
Breast cancer therapies, though lifesaving, have both short- and long-term effects on our physical and mental wellbeing. For many women, maintaining some semblance of normalcy amidst all that has changed—a woman's hair, her figure, her energy level, her libido—can be as overwhelming as the diagnosis itself.
For young women facing a breast cancer diagnosis, issues around intimacy are particularly important. BCRF Investigator Dr. Ann Partridge, professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the Adult Survivorship Program at Dana-Farber/Brigham and Women’s Cancer Center, says women who have been diagnosed with breast cancer feel physically, and more often, emotionally uncomfortable with the look and feel of their chest/breast area after treatment.
“It is so important for them to be patient with themselves as they adjust in their survivorship,” Dr. Partridge said. “It may be helpful to speak to a mental health provider, particularly someone who specializes in sex and intimacy after cancer.”
Talk about your symptoms
Conversations about sex and intimacy might already be uncomfortable topics to discuss with a physician. More importantly, a woman may not even associate difficulties with sex and her breast cancer treatment.
But women face a variety of issues and symptoms that can interfere with their relationships and sex lives during and after breast cancer treatment, including body image concerns (such as scars, hair loss and loss of breasts) and changes to their sexual health and comfort (like vaginal dryness or loss of libido resulting from hormone treatments). Young women may face complications such as the loss of ovaries or chemotherapy-induced premature menopause.
There are remedies for some symptoms, including loss of libido, vaginal dryness, pain during sex, and depression, which could be underlying factor in a loss of interest in sex. But your doctor needs to know what you are experiencing.
Although doctors are encouraged to ask their patients about all potential side effects of treatment, including changes in sexual intimacy, it is important to speak up about anything you are experiencing. Even if your doctor doesn’t have the answers, he/she will be able to refer you to someone who can help.
Pay attention to your mental health
According to the AACR/ASCO Survivorship Care Guidelines, 22 percent of breast cancer survivors report experiencing depression and anxiety. These conditions can negatively impact intimacy and libido.
The risk of depression is even higher in younger patients. Since symptoms of depression are not often clear, the patient and her doctor may not immediately recognize them. A person may just feel that things are different and express a desire for life to return to “normal,” but may not be able to put these changes into words.
Depression can often be treated with therapy and, in some cases, medication. Be sure to tell your doctor if you’ve experienced a loss of interest or pleasure in doing things, feelings of hopeless, guilt or depression, a lack of energy, any changes in appetite or anything out of the ordinary.
New challenges in relationships, intimacy, and sex are common after a breast cancer diagnosis and treatment. But talking about your concerns with your doctors, partners, and loved ones can help.
For additional information about breast cancer and relationships:
- Getting back to normal: A BCRF podcast with Dr. Debra Barton
- Managing the stress of cancer treatments: A BCRF podcast with Dr. Annette Stanton
- The challenges of breast cancer in young women: A BCRF podcast with Dr. Ann Partridge
- More about pregnancy and breast cancer: An article from Dana-Farber Cancer Institute