For many of my patients, their greatest fear surfaced as their victory over cancer was nearly complete. This question nagged at them: “Has cancer done irreparable harm to my womanhood?” Sadly, the default answer some women kept giving themselves was “Even if that’s true, there’s nothing I can do about it.”
I passed along insights to them that I’d heard from other patients, but the tips and optimistic comments were ad hoc—and not enough to dispel the fear.
The Patty Brisben Foundation for Women’s Sexual Health decided to help us get scientific answers to the questions and concerns that plagued these patients. It funded a major study to explore women’s sexual functioning after gynecological cancers. I ran the study out of the University of Colorado School of Medicine with Columbia University Medical Center, Loma Linda University Medical Center, and Denver Health Medical Center also involved.
Sixty-two percent of the women who participated were over the age of 50; the average age of women in the study was 56. Nearly 100 percent of those women were in relationships.
I have some good news for you if you’re in this age group: Women in the study who were under 50 had a higher risk of experiencing significant sexual dysfunction than their older counterparts. Why? You can probably guess some key answers. They were more comfortable in their own skin, their primary relationship tended to have a longer life, and they were more inclined to be candid with other women about things that bothered them—and ask for help on fixing them.
At the end of the study, we had provocative answers about sexual functioning after cancer. Armed with that data, I decided to build on it with a book of practical guidance on how to address the whole spectrum of intimacy issues my patients faced. I teamed up with a 62-year old patient of mine in order to tell women exactly what they could do to restore intimacy, romance, and love after diagnosis and treatment. I mention her age because she was particularly tuned in to the advice and solutions that would resonate with women who were “AARP eligible.”
There are physical, emotional, and psychological solutions to overcoming sexual and marital dysfunction. Some of them are small actions, taken on a case-by-case basis, and some of them are pervasive in terms of lifestyle.
The solutions we offer in the book fall into all three categories. Some are medical or scientific in nature, and some are non-medical ones.
One of the key scientific insights is how you can stimulate production of oxytocin—the so-called love hormone—in your system. It affects both your desire for, and your satisfaction with, close contact.
Just being able to trust another person encourages your system to make oxytocin. With trust at the foundation of an intimate connection, and with intimacy being a major stimulus for the production of this hormone, you can see how things in your relationship can keep getting better and better. So embrace the science of how to feel good!
One of the key physical therapies we discuss is fixing the muscles you need for pleasure. Some women experience pelvic floor dysfunction after cancer treatment. The pelvic floor is a network of muscles, ligaments, and tissues that act like a hammock to support all the structures in the pelvis. There are physical therapists who specialize in this area and some of them shared their how-to advice on restoring pelvic floor function in the book.
Last but not least, we look at myriad non-medical ways to address issues getting in the way of your pleasure. They range of investing in a cold cap, a device to prevent hair loss while undergoing chemotherapy, to the value of wearing socks during sex if you have a tendency to get cold.
Gynecological cancers represent the third most common cancer for women in the United States. Each year, about 83,000 more women are added to the rolls of women facing these cancers. The good news is that there is now a greater than 70 percent chance of survival. But the challenges related to quality of life for those survivors involve some deeply personal issues related to self-esteem and enjoyment of their most intimate relationship.
Our aim was to give real answers to millions of women who want to restore an intimate connection—and we don’t mean “just” sex. You have a right to pleasure in many forms at any age.