An estimated 280,000 women will be diagnosed with new cases of invasive breast cancer this year, while there will be about 50,000 diagnoses of non-invasive breast cancer. The majority of these women will undergo some form of treatment to combat the disease. Given the prevalence of breast cancer, you likely know someone who has been affected by the disease or you may even be among the many women who have received this diagnosis personally.
We are fortunate to live in an era when research, screenings, and treatment have improved dramatically compared to a generation ago, but even the least invasive treatments will take a toll on your emotional and physical state, your health, and your relationships - including those with your spouse or partner.
The Statistics: One in Eight Women Will Be Diagnosed
October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month, an international health campaign dedicated to raising awareness as well as funds to help find a cure.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer among American women after skin cancer. About 12% of women (or one in eight) will develop this cancer at some point in their lifetimes, and we can expect roughly 45,000 female deaths due to breast cancer in 2020. Worldwide, the World Health Organization (WHO) states that breast cancer is the most prevalent cancer in women. In 2018, there were approximately 630,000 breast cancer deaths, accounting for 15% of all cancer deaths worldwide.
Common Breast Cancer Treatments and Their Side Effects
If you are diagnosed with breast cancer, your care team will discuss various treatment options with you. According to some of the leading cancer research organizations, common treatments for breast cancer include: local treatment, breast conserving surgery (BCS) including lumpectomy or partial mastectomy, and forms of targeted radiation and chemotherapy. Your treatment will depend on your type of breast cancer, as well as the severity.
While it’s important to have a treatment plan laid out, part of that treatment plan should be discussing any potential or common side effects from the treatment deemed best for you.
Some of the most common side effects from breast cancer treatment include:
- Abdominal pain
- Appetite changes
- Fertility issues
- Loss of libido
- Vaginal dryness
- Vaginal atrophy
- Light bleeding
- Increased risk for infections like UTIs
- Discharge related to elevated vaginal pH
Of those listed above, one of the most common side effects of breast cancer treatment is vaginal dryness. Vaginal dryness is something that normally occurs during natural hormonal changes in the body, such as during breastfeeding or menopause. This is due to the drop of estrogen in the body, which can cause changes like less flexible and thinner vaginal tissue and membranes. Unfortunately, common breast cancer treatments can also cause vaginal dryness. And this vaginal dryness can make sex uncomfortable or even painful due to a lack of naturally occurring lubrication.
If you’re thinking to yourself that some of these symptoms sound an awful lot like menopause, that’s because breast cancer treatment can cause early-onset menopause (average age for menopause in the United States is 52). For older women, this isn’t as much of an issue, but for younger women who may want to someday have a baby, there is a risk that their hormonal levels might drastically change during and after treatment.
In addition, breast cancer treatment can also cause vaginal atrophy, which is a persistent inflammation of the vaginal walls. This can make sex uncomfortable and even painful.
It’s important to talk to your care team about any sexual concerns you might have surrounding treatment for breast cancer.
Why Does Dryness Occur During Treatment?
The majority of these side effects are a direct result of the dropping levels of estrogen that occur from common breast cancer treatments, such as chemotherapy, hormone therapy, or other treatments.
Some breast cancer treatments cause early-onset menopause, which causes the body to act like it's going into menopause due to the drop in estrogen. Other treatments like chemotherapy can cause vaginal dryness and other symptoms of menopause. If you have hormone-receptor-positive breast cancer you may end up having to get a hysterectomy which can cause vaginal dryness and other problems with the natural lubrication response of the body. Finally, hormone therapy can cause the vagina to produce less lubrication.
How Might Treatment Impact Your Relationship?
On top of the stress and anxiety that can arise after being diagnosed with breast cancer, treatment can contribute additional strain to relationships, as things like vaginal dryness, irritation, and atrophy may negatively affect one’s self-esteem, body image, and ability to have and enjoy sex with a partner.
Emotional aspects aside, breast cancer treatment can also negatively impact reproductive goals. Since some breast cancer treatments can cause early-onset menopause, this can potentially have both a temporary or permanent effect on whether you will be able to have children. For couples that were planning on having one or more children, this can be incredibly devastating.
While it’s unlikely that breast cancer treatment will have an impact on your ability to have an orgasm, especially if you were able to do so before, you should look out for changes in your libido and response to intimacy.
It’s important to ask your doctor questions about how treatment will impact your sex life and also to communicate your findings with your partner. That way you can feel confident having all the relevant information and set up a plan to still enjoy sex and intimacy during and after your breast cancer treatment.
Handling the Sexual Side Effects of Breast Cancer Treatment
While it’s incredibly overwhelming to get diagnosed with breast cancer, finding out that treatment may hugely alter your sex life can be even harder to deal with. However, there are plenty of things you can do and products you can use to help deal with these unfortunate side effects.
According to BreastCancer.org, one thing you can bring into the bedroom is a high-quality, water-based lubricant, such as any of Good Clean Love’s all-natural lubricants.
Products to Relieve Dryness and Provide Lasting Moisture
Almost Naked® Organic Lubricant is our bestselling water- and aloe-based personal lubricant. Lightly scented and designed to balance the salt levels of the vagina, this is a good all-around choice.
BioNude Ultra Sensitive Personal Lubricant is Bio-Matched® to the ideal pH and salt balance needed for the sensitive tissues that can come from breast cancer treatment. It’s hypoallergenic and made with hydroxyethylcellulose, another plant-based ingredient that makes a product thicker and softer to the touch.
While it’s important to have a good vaginal lubricant to use during intercourse, breast cancer treatment can cause you to feel dry, irritated, or in pain even when you’re not having sex. This is where a vaginal moisturizer comes in. Like a sort of lotion for your intimate areas, a vaginal moisturizer can help maintain healthy and optimal vaginal moisture levels.
Restore® Moisturizing Vaginal Gel is designed to balance your pH and salt balance like all of our Bio-Matched® products. The product can be applied anytime, night or day, and is designed for daily use with a reusable applicator.
Restore® is easily paired with a gentle unscented feminine wash like Balance Moisturizing Personal Wash which can be used daily in the shower and with our vaginal suppository probiotic, BiopHresh Vaginal Homeopathic Suppository. This vaginal suppository contains billions of healthy lactobacilli strains and combines it with traditional homeopathic remedies for optimal vaginal health. You can find all three products in our Flourish Vaginal Care System™.
Other Steps You Can Take
While having good products is important, it’s also worth noting that you might have to think about sex a little bit differently while undergoing treatment from breast cancer.
For one, you might consider adding more foreplay to your intimate sessions. You can also experiment with more non-penetrative play, too. This can include massage, a kissing only session, toys, oral sex, and more. For these sessions, you might consider adding an aphrodisiac to really wake up the limbic brain, which helps you get into a sexual head space.
Take extra care to ensure you are sufficiently warmed up before engaging in any kind of penetrative sex and are in both the mental and physical space to be intimate. If you can’t get there, you might try things like taking a shower or bath together, just lying together naked, or playing with a toy. You can also try alternate positions.
Breast cancer diagnosis can be overwhelming and treatment for the disease can radically change your sex life. This is because common breast cancer treatments like chemotherapy, hormone therapy, and targeted radiation can drastically alter your sexual response – causing everything from vaginal irritation to dryness, to atrophy or early menopause. The reason? Treatments affect the amount of estrogen your body produces and, unfortunately, this hormone governs your vaginal lubrication response.
While it can be scary, it’s important to know that there are proactive steps you can take to maintain your sex life during and after breast cancer treatment. Some of these include using a good vaginal lubricant during sex, using a vaginal moisturizer on a daily basis, and increasing the amounts of foreplay and other sexual touch in your life.