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Lovemaking, Too, Can Survive Breast Cancer

How to be a supportive, sexual partner through a woman's diagnosis, treatment and recovery

En español | Breast cancer can wreak havoc with women's sexuality, and therefore men's. But within two years after treatment, couples in supportive relationships usually adjust and enjoy sex as much as they ever did — sometimes more.

Couple cuddling together on sofa. A guide to sex after breast cancer. (Blend Images/Alamy)

Couples in supportive relationships can adjust and enjoy sex after breast cancer treatment. — Blend Images/Alamy

Most medical studies paint a distressing picture of the sexual impact of breast cancer:

  • It makes women feel less attractive.
  • Seventy percent of women report sex problems after treatment.
  • Breast removal (mastectomy) makes women feel disfigured, which kills libido. And even a breast-sparing lumpectomy may leave scars that have a similar emotional impact.
  •  Many studies show that breast-cancer treatment causes long-term sexual harm.

Any cancer, of course, can impair sexuality. The initial diagnosis is traumatic. Then, once treatment starts, its side effects typically include desire-killing fatigue, depression, hair loss and nausea. But breast cancer is particularly problematic because a woman's breasts are so intimately connected with sexual attractiveness and erotic play.

Hope for Lovers After Breast Cancer

Regrettably, most studies of sex after breast cancer explore only the problems, not their resolution. On top of that, most long-term studies survey women just six to 12 months after treatment — not very long-term at all, if you ask me.

But a few studies have focused on how couples can return to lovemaking after breast cancer. These show that in a loving, supportive relationship:

  • Sexual frequency and satisfaction usually return to prediagnosis levels within a year or two.
  • A man's reaction to his partner's cancer-related emotional distress plays a significant role in the woman's sexual recovery.
  • Among women who lose a breast to mastectomy, reconstruction often hastens the return to satisfying lovemaking.

Researchers at UCLA, USC and Georgetown surveyed 863 breast cancer survivors two years after treatment. All were sexually active at diagnosis, and all had undergone surgery, with some also opting for radiation and/or chemotherapy. Among the half who had mastectomies, one-third had reconstructions.

Compared with a control group of cancer-free women, the participants' libido, erotic responsiveness, orgasms and sexual satisfaction were pretty much the same. In other words, breast cancer survivors recover not just physically but sexually within about two years.

Next page: Relationship satisfaction is crucial. »

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