From a generation or two ago, when the word “breast” was only whispered to today’s “Save the Tatas” t-shirts and “I ♥ Boobies” bracelets, there has been a significant shift in how American society sees and responds to breast cancer. Overwhelmingly I think the advances are great, and I would be the last person to advocate for a return to the shame and secrecy with which this disease was once treated. At the same time, I wonder if the pendulum hasn’t swung in the opposite direction; how it is that breast cancer and sex appeal have become linked? Consistent with my concern about breast cancer as a marketing tool, I wonder when breast cancer became sexy.
These campaigns, be they for products or non-profits, objectify women. Perky young breasts may sell, but talk to any survivor: from being bald and sick during chemo or angry red scars from surgery, and you’ll discover that there is NOTHING sexy about breast cancer. Despite the best of intentions, when your own body turns against you, and your breasts become the very source of the pain associated with treatment and the threat of a deadly disease, it’s hard to feel sexy about it all. It is all the more ironic that women are being objectified in the fight against breast cancer, especially when a positive self-image and comfort with intimacy can be such a struggle post-treatment.
The fact is that sexuality after breast cancer, while commanding more attention as time goes on, is one of the dirty little secrets that is rarely discussed, even among survivors themselves. It is all but impossible to endure chemo, surgery, radiation, hormonal treatments, or all of the above, and come out feeling sexy and desirable. Fatigue, loss of libido, and vaginal dryness are part and parcel with breast cancer treatment for most women. Layer on top of that having your breast cut open or off, and a complicated emotional landscape emerges. Does your partner touch your breast, or not? Does it bring on a flood of emotion when he or she does? What about birth control, especially if you are among those premenopausal women who cannot risk taking estrogen-based birth control? Or postmenopausal women on aromatase inhibitors, which tend to exacerbate vaginal dryness? Every step can feel like a pitfall back into the world of cancer at the exact moment when you want nothing more than to put it behind you.
Studies suggest that at least 70% of women experience some measure of sexual dysfunction during and after treatment, and it is fair to speculate that there is likely some underreporting. And where do you turn for help? Far too few doctors even address these issues, and even then answers aren’t always available and risk factors for treatments are sometimes still unknowns. Ultimately, I find it ironic that we can use sexuality and breast cancer together to sell a product or a cause, but that comfort in talking about the real issues of survivors’ sexuality is still hard to find. Shouldn’t THAT be the focus of sex and breast cancer? How do we change the conversation?