You’re young, you’re supposed to be in your sexual prime, and you have ovarian cancer. At a time when you’re defining your sexual identity, this diagnosis can be devastating. Questions of fertility, body image and basic logistics, like how to tell a date you have cancer, can all seem overwhelming. You may feel that your fight with cancer is personal and not the business of the man or woman you are on a date with. Or, you may feel it’s dishonest to withhold that information about yourself with your partner. It is up to you how and when you share this information.
Take some time alone to think about where you are emotionally with your diagnosis. There are specially trained social workers who work with oncology patients to understand questions like these and can provide tactics for dealing with these conversations. Many oncology clinics employ therapists who specialize in sexual health concerns; talk to your doctor to see if s/he can recommend someone. For more information on support organizations, see the Resources section.
The physical side effects from treatment can compound many of those emotional side effects. Recovery from surgery can take several weeks and you may feel fatigued or lethargic and notice some changes in your libido. The change in hormones due to early onset menopause can also impact sexual pleasure and desire. Loss of estrogen can lead to the narrowing of blood vessels and secretions in the vagina causing vaginal dryness and can make sex uncomfortable or painful. Additionally, estrogen depletion and scarring from radiation may also cause a shortening of the vagina.
But the good news: there are also solutions! Over the counter lubricants can help with vaginal dryness due to menopause. Regular intercourse, or vaginal dilators if you are not ready for intercourse, can help to stretch your vaginal walls. Talk to your doctor about the benefits and risks of recently approved medications designed to help combat female sexual dysfunction. Open communication with your partner is critical to reestablishing a sense of intimacy when you’re ready.