It’s National Hereditary Breast and Ovarian Cancer Week – and here’s what I have to say about it over at philly.com.
Here’s a link to my latest philly.com post on why I chose not to breastfeed my son.
I’m excited to announce that I’ve been asked to be a regular blogger for the Philadelphia Inquirer’s new “Diagnosis: Cancer” blog. My first post appeared on Monday.
In this post, I am going to tell you how I got my sex life back after surgically-induced menopause. I’ll start by saying that if you are a member of my family, you may want to stop reading. I’m not planning to be too graphic, but I will definitely be writing more about my sex life than anyone who ever eats at a dinner table with us will feel comfortable knowing about. But other readers – you may want to pay attention. If someone had shown me this post two years ago, I would’ve been so relieved to have it! I hope you feel the same.
So yeah, my husband and I are having sex again, and it’s really really good. By “again,” I mean pretty much weekly for the first time since we were married almost six years ago. By “good,” I mean I can have multiple orgasms, and I’m 100% sure he’s enjoying himself, too. I think about sex now while we’re not having sex, and I look forward to it again after many years of not caring about it at all.
Let me go back before the hysterectomy/BSO just a bit. Our sex life declined only months after our wedding for a variety of reasons. We moved, had trouble settling in, my husband was unemployed, we had no money, and we fought a lot. Soon after we resolved all of that, I became pregnant, and I think we were both freaked out by the idea of having sex with our baby “in there,” so there was very little sex after the first trimester. In the third year, I suffered from debilitating postpartum depression and anxiety, and when I recovered, I essentially suffered from PTSD. It took me nearly a year of therapy to realize that I was terrified of having sex: sex could lead to pregnancy, and pregnancy could lead to the dark abyss of PPD/A, and there was no way I was going back there. Also, I had begun to experience pain during intercourse after my pregnancy (three gynecologists were unable to diagnose it). Even though the pain was only during intercourse, I became turned off to the the idea of sexual activity of any kind. The cocktail of anti-depressants and anti-anxiety medications I was taking didn’t help my waning libido.
For a while, we just took care of our kid; eventually we moved again, and I think we became kind of used to not having sex. It was only six months after we moved that I was diagnosed with DCIS, and within a month, I had a bilateral mastectomy with DIEP reconstruction – it was about three months until my body felt normal again and we tried to have sex. It was clearly nothing worth reporting about; I was ok with my new body, but that same post-pregnancy pain was still there. Then I had the hysterectomy and BSO. As if things could get any worse – they just went downhill from there. I lost all of my libido. Before the hyst/BSO, at least I still was still turned on by Don Draper – not Jon Hamm – just Don Draper, but by this time, even the Mad Man himself couldn’t excite me. And when my husband and I did try to have sex, it was a complete disaster.
We clearly had problems with our sex life before the hysterectomy/BSO, but I believe that the steps we took to fix the problems are those that could help anyone suffering from mental blocks, pain during intercourse, and lack of libido — all effects of surgically-induced menopause — regardless of what your sex life was like before the surgery.
So, how did we fix the problems? Well, I can tell you easily what he did – he was patient and understanding. He didn’t pressure me. At a certain point, on the advice of my therapist, I told him that sex was off the table until I could figure out what was going on with my body and my head. That way I didn’t have to feel guilty that he had an expectation of sex and I wasn’t fulfilling it. He gave me all the time I needed. Years. And here’s what I did with that time.
Internal Hormone Therapy: I started at my gynecologist’s office. I had convinced myself that all of the issues around sex were caused by the hysterectomy/BSO – both mentally and physically. My gyn suggested two things: vaginal estrogen and a sex therapist. Despite a diagnosis of DCIS, I had already been on an oral estrogen because of my depression and mood swings, but my mother had suggested that I ask for vaginal estrogen to help with dryness (which results in pain with intercourse). My understanding is that vaginal estrogen can be safe for women who have BRCA mutation or have had breast cancer (those who are usually told not to take oral or transdermal estrogen) because it’s basically local – it doesn’t go into your whole system. So my doctor prescribed Vagifem. The Vagifem creates lubrication and it does help with libido (I have no idea how it does that, but I could tell within the first two weeks of using it that I some “special feelings” down there). But it did not help with the undiagnosed post-pregnancy pain, and it didn’t help with my new fear – the vaginal cuff. I was terrified that my husband’s penis would rip through this wall; it was a block that I was having difficulty getting over. Nevertheless – the sex therapist – I rejected this advice. Why? Well, I have been in therapy pretty consistently for about 20 years, so I suspected this was something I could figure out eventually on my own and with my current therapist. I also really really really wanted to continue to blame the whole thing on lack of hormones because of the BSO – I didn’t want to admit that we’d had some problems with sex before the surgery. I wasted over a year going down denial river. Then….
Myofascial Release and Pelvic Floor Therapy: In January, I began to have spasms in my abdomen that I knew was from the muscle that had been cut during the flap procedure for my mastectomy (two years earlier). I went to see my plastic surgeon, and he prescribed physical therapy. I sought out a family friend who is a physical therapist, and she introduced me to a progressive treatment she is now doing – myofascial release (yes, the website is credibly cheesy looking). As she performed MFR on various parts of my body to release pain, and as it began working, I told her about the pain I had during intercourse. She explained that she could also do MFR internally – through my vagina. She also taught me how to do it to myself in between sessions using dilators and other therapy tools. After about five months of MFR on my entire body and only about two months of pelvic floor therapy, I was able to have intercourse with no pain for the first time in more than five years. But I still wasn’t enjoying sex (having orgasms); my libido was still low, I still had a fear of the vaginal cuff (regardless of countless affirmations by medical professionals that the cuff was indeed healed and the chances of it tearing were practically nil), and so I knew I still had mental blocks that I needed to work out.
Mental Health: Although my PTSD is a moot point now (I can’t get pregnant, so there’s no worry there), I was still having problems in my head that weren’t allowing me to enjoy sex, even though I’d received treatment for the physical pain. I won’t get into a lot of the details about all of the particular issues, but this is just to say that therapy did help me, even though it wasn’t specifically a sex therapist I turned to. The way my therapist helped me the most was that he suggested scheduling sex. After not having regular sex for nearly five years, working a more-than full-time job, keeping a household, raising a preschooler, going through a cancer scare and a year of surgeries, the death of my mother-in-law – it’s really easy to make an excuse for why “not tonight, honey.” My therapist suggested that sex on our calendar would help us stop making excuses. It might not seem like the most romantic of solutions, but we had to start somewhere.
Scheduling Sex: We decided to schedule sex on Sunday nights and do our best to keep to the schedule regardless of how tired we are or even if we aren’t in the mood. Sex is a good way to start the week – connected and happy. For the last two months or so, we have more or less kept to the schedule. This has had several positive effects. After going years without regular sex, it’s helped me to see the value of sex as a regular part of our relationship, even if it’s not spontaneous (and now that it’s better, it has become, on occasion, spontaneous, too). It’s helped me to get over my fear of the vaginal cuff tearing. And of course, I think it’s helping both of our moods a lot. But having sex on the schedule can make it seem like just another task we do every week, like Thursday night garbage and Saturday morning laundry. So we’ve had to spice it up.
Discussion of my “new” sexual needs: Over the last few years, after two breast surgeries and a hysterectomy/BSO, my body is different both inside and outside. So it makes sense that the sexual activities I enjoyed before I gave birth four years ago no longer help me achieve orgasm; it took me a while to realize that I have new needs. I know I was in denial about this – mostly because it meant admitting that I am a menopausal woman, which is something that has been incredibly hard for me to come to terms with as someone who is not yet 40 (at least, not for another year and 8 days); it’s something that makes me angry and sad every day. While this isn’t the case for all women, for me, being menopausal means that having an orgasm isn’t easy anymore, and that my husband and I both have to work harder for me to enjoy sex. So, importantly, I had to be open with my husband about my new needs. As I sort of expected, he has been very willing to respond to my new needs. The results – not only can I achieve multiple orgasms now, but I think about sex and look forward to sex. Sunday is definitely fun day.
I know this is lengthy and detailed, but ever since I had the hyst/BSO, I have looked for advice like this – for someone to tell me how to reclaim my sexual identity after all of my biologically female parts are now gone. I hope this helps someone else do just that.
A few months ago, I discovered a parenting podcast, The Longest Shortest Time (LST). I really enjoy this podcast, but even more so I enjoy the Facebook group to which many of its listeners belong. There, moms post tons of great questions and even better feedback – responses to those questions that aren’t judgmental, that are really helpful and really supportive.
Yesterday, one of the moms posted a picture of herself with her child, explaining that she had just had a photo session of her and her baby, wanting to capture memories of their breastfeeding before she had a prophylactic mastectomy. This spurred a few of us to disclose our BRCA+ status, and before we knew it, two of us had decided to create a LST spin-off group – LST BRCA+ Mamas.
You might be wondering, do we need a Facebook group just for moms who are BRCA+, or, why do we need such a group? For me, it’s because a lot of my concerns, issues, and fears about being BRCA+ are wrapped up in being a mom. I was a lot less fearful of BRCA before I was a parent. But now I have a lot more to worry about it – is my son BRCA+? Will I have to have more surgery, and will he have to take care of me if I get cancer? Will I die and leave him motherless at a young age? When I think about BRCA now (as opposed to before I had a child), I think primarily about two things – the tragedy that is my body, and how this might all impact my son at some unknown future date.
I’m pretty sure I wrote about this before, but it might bear repeating – one of the major reasons I didn’t breastfeed my son was because I knew I was going to have a mastectomy one day, and I didn’t want to have any emotional attachment to my breasts. I didn’t want to see them as something that linked me and my baby.
These are issues quite specific to moms who are BRCA+. So we hope you’ll join us for conversation at LST BRCA+ Mamas – a closed, private space for positive support and open discussion about the challenges of being a mutant mom.