Sex after breast cancer

More press on our recent study related to breast cancer and sexuality appeared in the Bloomington Herald-Times and can be found on their web site after the jump. When I went to my dermatologist the other day, she mentioned that she’d seen the article (much more comfortable than the time my gynecologist walked in the room and said he and his wife had seen me on the Discovery Channel talking about sex!) and thought it was good coverage of a challenging topic. I agree and would love to hear your thoughts, too.

Toys, games aid sex after cancer
IU study explores possibilities for intimacy after surgery or other treatment

By Dann Denny
November 20, 2008

Most young women fighting breast cancer want to keep their sex lives vibrant, according to an Indiana University study.

The study found that two-thirds of female breast cancer survivors said they were interested in playing sex games with their partners, and 78 percent said they were interested in attending sex toy parties.

The study of 115 breast cancer survivors under age 50 was published in a recent issue of the journal “Cancer Nursing.”

Debby Herbenick, the study’s lead researcher and associate director of the Center for Sexual Health Promotion at Indiana University’s School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation, said the sex games that intrigued the women ranged from board games that encouraged spontaneous sexual expression to scratch-off cards you could give your partner.

“You would use the cards to promise your partner a full body massage, back rub or something more sexually explicit,” she said. “The overall purpose is to make sex fun.”

Herbenick said the sex toy parties the women showed interest in are similar to Mary Kay or Tupperware parties, except that people buy vibrators, dildos, vaginal lubricants and massage lotions rather than blusher and storage tubs.

She said 51 percent of the women in the study expressed interest in using vibrators or dildos, 77 percent wanted to use massage lotions and oils, and 83 percent were interested in using vaginal lubricants.

Herbenick said she was not surprised by her study’s findings, because breast cancer and its treatment often rob a woman of her ability to become sexually aroused, enjoy sex or reach orgasm.

“Many survivors have a hard time experiencing sex in the way they want to, due to things like decreased arousal and vaginal lubrication,” she said. “Vibrators and other sexual enhancement products can stimulate arousal, which in turn promotes the natural process of vaginal lubrication and ultimately, orgasm.”

Herbenick said chemotherapy is particularly problematic — often reducing a woman’s libido and energy while increasing her vaginal dryness and pain. She said more than 70 percent of the women in the study had vaginal dryness, 95 percent experienced fatigue, and more than half got nauseous in response to certain scents or tastes.

“Fatigue and nausea may not seem like sexual problems, but they can indirectly prevent women from engaging in sexual activity,” she said. “When a woman is fatigued she may not want the sex to last a long time, but without foreplay it’s much harder for her to develop the vaginal lubrication she needs.”

Herbenick said she did not know what role breast surgery or breast removal played in the sexual problems of the women in the study.

“My main hope is that the study will open the door to conversation about breast cancer and sexuality,” she said. “There are millions of breast cancer survivors who can benefit from having conversations with their partners about how they can enhance their relationship, regardless of the level of sexual activity they want.”

She said even if couples rarely have intercourse, it’s important for them to touch one another through massage and other forms of sensual bonding, because it keeps their relationship intimate.

“Most of the woman said they wanted to increase their own sexual satisfaction, and 90 percent said it was also important for them to increase their partner’s sexual enjoyment,” she said.

The study was funded by the Patty Brisben Foundation, a nonprofit organization that supports research related to women’s sexual health.

Patty Brisben of the Patty Brisben Foundation is also the CEO and founder of Pure Romance Inc., an in-home party company that specializes in sexual enhancement products for women.

About Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick

Dr. Debby Herbenick is a sex researcher at Indiana University, sexual health educator at The Kinsey Institute, columnist, and author of five books about sex and love. Learn more about her work at www.sexualhealth.indiana.edu.