When I was diagnosed with breast cancer in April 2021, I was single and living on my own in California, thousands of miles away from friends and family in the UK. Luckily I have an amazing support system over here, but it was a lot - physically and emotionally.
At 42, the diagnosis was a shock. I was lucky to not need chemotherapy but they said I’d need a mastectomy. After discussing with my surgeon, I decided to have DIEP flap surgery, where the breast is reconstructed using abdominal tissue. Even though the other breast was cancer-free, I opted for a double mastectomy. This meant I’d no longer need to have mammograms, and also the end result would be more symmetrical. I had very large breasts before, so now they’re down from an F to a D.
Surgery involved cutting off my nipples, scooping out the breast tissue, reconstructing the breast using stomach fat, then sewing a circle of stomach skin on where the nipples used to be. A further procedure folded the skin up like origami to make new nipples, and the final step was having areolas tattooed on.
The healing process took months and I became quite depressed. I started taking a drug called Tamoxifen, to reduce the risk of cancer recurrence, which works by suppressing oestrogen so causes intense menopause-like symptoms. I had hot flushes, weight gain and emotionally it was a shit show. But I’m proud of how I got through it. You don't know how strong you are until you get tested, I guess, but I never thought I would be this strong.
Having sex again after cancer can be physically and emotionally daunting, and there is a real lack of support around it. You just have to get on with it. And because I wasn't in a relationship, it didn’t immediately matter if I had vaginal dryness or a lack of libido.
My first hook-up since cancer was a one night stand last year. It was a drunken fling, and it was too soon really. Physically, my breasts were done, but I hadn’t had the nipple reconstruction or tattoos yet, and my scars were very fresh on my stomach. Emotionally, I wasn't ready, but it helped me see that a sex life after cancer is possible. It was great in terms of making me feel certain things for the first time in a while. But I needed to feel better about myself before starting to date again.
Since last summer, I’ve been feeling much better. I started working out and lost weight, but it wasn't really about the weight loss. It’s more about feeling healthier, which has helped me feel sexy again. While I was deep in the world of scans and surgery and fear of what might happen, I went into survival mode and became shut down from so many things, including my sexuality.
Recently, I met a guy on a dating app. We went on a date, and I told him exactly what had happened. I told him that I've got scars all over my body. I even told him that there are areas of my body where I still can’t feel anything, such as having no real sensation in my breasts. Looking back, I word-vomited all over him, but he took it all in his stride.
After a couple of drinks, he came back to my house, we ended up sleeping together and it was great. Like, really great. He was very gentle and would ask me: ‘Can you feel this? Is this good?’ He really took care of me, which was wonderful.
I don't know if it's a long term thing, but I feel more sexually alive than I ever have. I guess partly because of what I’ve been through, and also partly because of getting older, I’m no longer insecure. I’m cool with myself. I don't care that I'm having sex with the light on and you can see every blemish and scar. It’s been wonderful and I feel good. I didn't think I would ever feel like this, let alone post-cancer. I definitely have my libido back!
Even though the Tamoxifen causes menopausal symptoms, it hasn’t stopped my periods so I can still technically get pregnant, but the drugs mean that it wouldn’t be a viable pregnancy, so I have to be careful. When I was diagnosed, there was a quick discussion about fertility. I never wanted to have children but, when they told me that this was going to stop me from being able to have children, I was really surprised at my own reaction. There was this whole weird grieving process, because it was always my choice not to have children, but now it's not my choice. That choice has been taken away from me.
One of the reasons I wanted to talk about this is because I want to show people what life - and sex - after cancer can be like. After all the surgery, I remember looking at myself thinking, ‘Is anyone going to like this body?’ And then I had this epiphany of ‘who cares?’ I survived something and this is my body and, if a man can’t handle that, he can fuck off.
But it takes time to get to that point so, if you’re feeling like you can't imagine having sex again after cancer treatment, don’t put any pressure on yourself. Make time to do something that’s just for you. I booked in for a massage every month, which is great for my lymphatic system but also being touched in a non-sexual way helped me get back into my body. It doesn’t have to be a massage. It could be taking a walk, going to yoga, or even just having a bath. Your libido will be back when it’s ready. If you have a partner, take it slowly. Set aside time to be together, not necessarily for sex, but just to get to know each other again.
We all rush through life but, after something like this, you need to acknowledge what you’ve been through. You nearly died, and your brain needs time to come to terms with that, and make a conscious choice to celebrate the fact that you’re still here.
The GIRLvsCANCER campaign is important because so many people have gone through this in silence. It’s why I wanted to be open, because we should normalise talking about it. I’ve been so fortunate to come through the other side, and now I have this chance to show what’s possible after cancer.
To Find Out More about GirlvsCancer’s latest campaign ‘Get F*cked’, plus additional information and resources, please visit www.girlvscancer.co.uk