Meredith, 27, was diagnosed with cancer twice in her twenties (first cervical cancer and then breast cancer). She explains how it impacted her relationship and sex life, and how it changed the way she feels about intimacy.
There’s never a good time to be diagnosed with cancer, but it really felt like the bombshell hit me at the worst possible moment. In December 2016, I was about to start training for my dream career, had just moved house and was excited about the future, when a routine smear test revealed I had cervical cancer. It was a total shock as I'd had no symptoms. The world spun on its axis.
Before that day, I was the same as many twenty something women: I loved going to the gym, dressing up for nights out with friends and going to football matches with my boyfriend Gareth, a man whose zest for life drew me in from the moment we met at a student event in a pub.
When Gareth and I first got together our relationship was long distance. Which meant that whenever we met, we’d be so excited to see one another that sex happened naturally – being physical was fun, easy and a glue that bonded us. But all that changed once I began my treatment.
After having cancerous tissue removed, I was forbidden from having penetrative sex, swimming, using a tampon or even having a bath for a month. Once I’d healed, sex, for the first time, suddenly became something we really had to think about. Certain positions now hurt, as areas of my cervix were exposed after surgery, and instead of asking, “Does this feel good?” Gareth began asking, “Is this painful?” We had to learn to communicate with an emotional honesty which hadn't always been necessary before.
Ten months later, another blow came. I found a lump. Doctors soon confirmed it was breast cancer. It almost hit harder than my cervical cancer diagnosis – there was something about being able to physically feel the way my body had betrayed me that made it all the rawer. Again, I found myself stripping off in front of doctors more frequently than my boyfriend. Gareth was supportive and came along to appointments, but at home he was afraid of hurting me. My body, something I'd once only shared with him, became something I had to share with so many others.
Sex slipped further down the list of my priorities, especially during chemotherapy. After one session I was so unwell, I pushed Gareth away when he tried to comfort me. My rejecting him was difficult for us both to understand, but drugs affect your moods and thoughts, and I'd gone into crisis mode. All my energy went on trying to survive.
Our sex life, which had kept us so close in the past, had changed irreversibly. I know Gareth found it frustrating at times and we both worried our relationship might not survive, but all we could do was acknowledge the situation was awful and push through anyway, hoping we'd be happier on the other side.
When you know the medical professionals you interact with are trying to save your life, asking for advice about what you can and can't do in the bedroom feels trivial (although whenever I did ask, they were helpful - one for example, prescribed me a moisturiser to help deal with vaginal dryness, a chemo side effect).
Slowly, we learnt new ways to be intimate with one another, like talking truly openly about how we’re feeling and about how my body has changed. We attended talks about sex and relationships through Breast Cancer Care and Jo’s Trust, which helped, especially realising others were in a similar boat. Practical things like taking it slow, longer foreplay and using lots of lube help too. I've also cleared out all of my old bras and replaced them with new sets – my old underwear had negative associations, so this was another small way of me reclaiming back part of my confidence.
I've now been given the all clear and am back to work pretty much full-time, bar the odd day off for a check-up appointment. Some mornings, I look in the mirror and find the scar on my breast empowering, on others it gets me down – although Gareth tells me I look amazing regardless. Communication is key in any relationship, but my experience has really hammered that home. I've learned that intimacy isn't just about sex but about the emotional connection between two people.
Ann Summers and Breast Cancer Now are working together to start the conversation about sex, intimacy and cancer. Ann Summers has launched MyViv, a product range and content platform, to support women’s sexual wellbeing.
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