Sex

Getting Sex Back

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.

No Go

Really, sex after hysterectomy?  Not as easy as it sounds.  (does it sound easy?)

It was not comfortable, and although it might have been had I given it more than a two minute chance, I got anxious.  Basically, I chickened out.

Do you care about my sex life?  Probably not.  But I just googled “intercourse after hysterectomy” and nowhere did I find a normal person reporting from her bed less than a hour after her husband went back downstairs to resume watching ESPN.  (yes, of course he was understanding, but eventually I did suggest he just go back to his previous activities).

Another thing I noticed is that if you do research on sex after hysterectomy, everyone is writing about sex drive.  That was not the problem.  I wanted to do it.  But it was physically uncomfortable – I felt pressure inside and some kind of scraping.  And I was nervous about something going in there when nothing has been in there for three months!  And what was in there three months ago was a whole lot of knives and tools that made a whole lot of cuts and caused all sorts of other damage.

So I’m thinking this is a bit mental and a bit physical.  Regardless, it is probably going to take a bit of time to ease back into it.  I did post a query to hystersisters to see how others have managed this, and I plan to email my PCP, Dr. Stern, as well (although Dr Sukumvanich performed the surgery, I don’t suspect he will have anything all that useful to contribute since, as he admitted, as long as there’s no cancer, that’s all he cares about).

Sex Tonight? (graphic pic – nonsexual!)

My husband is going to want to have sex tonight.  Why?  Because today marks three months from my hysterectomy/BSO and the doctor says we can now.  To tell you the truth, I thought I’d be really anxious about this moment, but I’m not.  I’m looking forward to it!  And this is odd.  I take a lot of anti-depressive medication, so my sex drive is erratic (and by erratic, I mean nil 95% of the time).  I’ve been working with my shrink to fix this by changing medication, but a secondary problem is that sex has been painful for me since I had our baby more than two years ago.  No gynecologist has been able to determine a reason for this, but I’m hoping that now that everything has been “reconstructed” down there, that maybe the pain will be gone as well.  Of course, that reconstruction could bring along its own discomfort, but I’m trying to think positively here.

I’m also curious to see what sorts of changes might come about from the changes in my hormones While many women report the loss of sexual enjoyment, some women report that their enjoyment is better than ever.  I’m hoping to be in that latter group!

An update on the patches I’ve been trying.  Last time I wrote, I mentioned that Dr Balk suggested I change to a once-weekly patch, and that might help with my headaches.  The once-weekly was a generic Climara patch and it did not go so well.  While my headaches did go away, they were replaced by the horrible skin effects of the patch.  It was so itchy, burning, uncomfortable, and it came off a few times in the shower.  Here’s the result:

Rash from generic Climara Patch

Rash from generic Climara Patch

This is the result of two different placements of the patch.  You can see the top part is mostly healed – rough dried out skin.  The bottom part is actually bleeding.  The black marks are from the sticky stuff.  And, the other marks are various scars from the hysterectomy.  Yep, as I’ve said before, my belly is a mess.  So I decided to go back to the Vivelle Dot.  I’ve been back on it now for two weeks and the headaches seem to be gone.  It’s really likely that those were environmental and just had to do with the weather changing.  I think I’ll stick with the Vivelle for now.

Speaking of mess, I have scheduled my third, and hopefully last, surgery for December 20.  Dr Gimbel will fix any of the mess left over from the original breast reconstruction – some indentations, some extra skin, construct nipples, and hopefully he’ll be able to do a little fixing of my oddly shaped and uncomfortable belly.

 

I’ll Take the Physical Challenge

Over the last week, I’ve successfully accomplished several physical challenges.  Here is a bit of assessment of how each went after ten weeks of hiatus from these activities:

Picking up Toddler
Easy as pie.  I have absolutely no problem lifting him, swinging him around, carrying him along with a diaper bag and an armful of groceries, getting him in and out of the carseat, etc, etc.  Unfortunately, he hasn’t gotten any lighter, but my arm muscles certainly have gotten weaker after ten weeks of nearly no use.  So, he’s heavy.  But I’m dealing.  It’s completely worth it!

Jogging
This is not a daily activity for me.  But, every now and then, I forget something in my office, so I jog down the hall from my classroom to the office to grab it.  I did this on Tuesday.  It was an interesting sensation.  My breasts are still jiggly – they’re human flesh, after all, and mostly made of fat.  But they also feel like they’re sort of pinned to my chest wall at the top, sort of like a balloon hanging from a string or a pegboard.

clara-mom-balloons

This is not me nor my child – just an illustration of the balloon tied to a string.

So, even though they move around, they still feel attached at the top, perhaps about 2-3 inches below my clavicle.  When I jogged down the hall, I felt a slight jiggle (nothing nearly like I felt with my previous breasts, which I would have been holding down across my chest while running in a non-sports bra), but mostly I just felt the pulling of that spot where the flap is probably sewn in to hold my breast upright and prevent too much sagging.

Vacuuming
Again, easy as pie.  I know my husband and mother are thrilled to death about that.

Sex
Yes, we did it.  I won’t say it wasn’t different.  While everything “down there” was great (no changes due to abdominal incision or flab removal), there are certainly changes “up top.”  Without getting into too much detail (out of respect for my husband), I will just say that I did feel self-conscious about my breasts.    In the past, my breasts were figuratively and literally a big part of our sex life.  But now, because they are nippleless and have those strange flat pseudo-areolas, I wasn’t sure I wanted them to be an active part of the process.  And, even though my husband has seen my new breasts multiple times, I just wasn’t ready for them to be a part of our intimacy.  So, I wore a camisole and we both just sort of ignored that area.  I think over time I’ll get braver about it, but for now this is how I need it to be, and he respects that.

Sex after DIEP?

Not that I even want to have sex. I mean, I can’t really imagine that much activity, pressure, weight on my body, etc. But I did find myself wondering today – even if I wanted to, am I allowed to? I feel like I’ve bothered Dr. Gimbel enough for this week, so I googled the question instead. I came up with this great list of when one can resume activities after DIEP. “Intercourse” (chuckle chuckle) is listed at ten-twelve weeks.

Of course, this probably has more to do with how an individual is healing. This list says I should wait three more weeks before swimming (which my dr already approved) and nine more weeks before lifting over 25 pounds (my son is 26 pounds, and my dr said I can start lifting him in three more weeks).

I’m gonna go with this list for the sex thing though. My husband’s not rushing me or anything, but I definitely feel a little less guilty knowing there’s a publication that says we can’t even if we want to!