“I’m sorry. You have cancer.”
Those five words changed my life. After hearing those words, I began my cancer journey in January 2008. There is nothing quite like the fear and confusion that accompanies a cancer diagnosis.
After some discussion about the type and stage of my cancer, the doctors finally settled on anal cancer, stage one. Within a week, we had scheduled both chemotherapy and radiation treatments for the following five weeks.
In preparation for the treatments, my medical team reviewed potential side effects with me. They said the treatment would burn my skin inside and out, make me sick, and cause me pain. However, they did not mention any long-term side effects. Though sexual dysfunction was listed as a possible side effect of the radiation, doctors assured me it wouldn’t be a problem because I was young, healthy, and sexually active. I was 48 at the time, with no other ailments, and married.
The treatments made me very ill. My medical team had prepared me for this. The last day of treatment was on a Friday, and soon after, I was hospitalized for a week. I was told my skin would soon heal, my stamina would gradually increase, and within 6-8 weeks, I could resume a normal sex life with my husband. But my treatment left me with long term sexual dysfunction that I wasn’t prepared for. My side effects included vaginal atrophy and the drying, thinning, shortening and scarring of the vaginal tissues. All of these symptoms resulted in painful and near impossible attempts at intercourse.
While the treatment successfully eliminated my tumor and my prognosis for survival was good, my sexual and intimate relationship with my husband was forever changed.
As I would soon learn first hand, a common side effect of many cancers—and specifically pelvic cancers—is sexual dysfunction. Though my medical team believed this wouldn’t be an issue, it has been a long-term life challenge that impacts the physical and emotional relationship I have with my husband.
Sexual dysfunction following cancer treatment has forced us to reconsider what connects us, to redefine our expectations of marriage, and to create new pathways for intimacy. Since cancer treatment, I’ve become a certified life coach who works with survivors to redefine their lives post cancer, specifically those suffering from sexual dysfunction. I started After Cancer™ as a resource for other cancer survivors.
Based upon my connections and experiences, I want to discuss this issue to help all those suffering in silence. We need healthcare providers to address sexual dysfunction as both a medical and quality-of-life issue.
Surviving cancer taught me a great deal. I created a new life, a life dedicated to helping others suffering physical, psychological, and emotional scars due to sexual dysfunction.
Though challenging and painful, I now realize cancer was also a gift. I am stronger since cancer, able to connect with others on a deeper level, and to recognize emotional intimacy as a key ingredient to happiness and successful relationships. As a cancer survivor, I am committed to spending the remainder of my life helping others redefine intimacy for themselves and in their relationships.