Breast Cancer

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After Treatment TOPICS

Sexuality after breast cancer

You may have concerns about sexuality after breast cancer. Physical changes (such as those after surgery) make some women less comfortable with their bodies. Some treatments for breast cancer, such as chemotherapy, can change your hormone levels and may negatively affect sexual interest and/or response. For women in their 20s or 30s who may be focused on choosing a partner or having children, a diagnosis of breast cancer can be especially difficult.

Sexual impact of surgery and radiation

Breast cancer treatments like surgery and radiation can damage to a woman's feelings of attractiveness. In our culture, we are taught to view breasts as a basic part of beauty and femininity. If a breast has been removed, a woman may worry about whether her partner will still find her attractive. She may also be worried about not being able to enjoy sexual stimulation in the affected breast.

Even after having a breast removed, some women still enjoy being stroked around the area of the healed scar. Others dislike being touched there and may no longer even enjoy being touched on the remaining breast and nipple. Some women who have had a mastectomy may feel self-conscious in certain sexual positions where the area of the missing breast is more visible.

Although there may be emotional effects, breast surgery or radiation to the breasts does not physically decrease a woman's sexual desire. Nor does it decrease her ability to have vaginal lubrication or normal genital feelings, or to reach orgasm. And according to recent research, most women with early-stage breast cancer have good emotional adjustment and sexual satisfaction within a year after their surgery. They report a quality of life similar to women who never had cancer.

A few women have chronic pain in their chests and shoulders after surgery. During intercourse, supporting these areas with pillows and avoiding positions where your weight rests on your chest or arms may help.

If you had breast-conserving surgery followed by radiation therapy, the breast may be scarred. It also may be a different shape or size. During radiation therapy, the skin may become red and swollen, and the breast may be a little tender. This improves over time after radiation is finished.

Sexual impact of breast reconstruction

Breast reconstruction restores the shape of the breast, but it cannot restore normal breast sensation. The nerve that supplies feeling to the nipple runs through the deep breast tissue, and it gets disconnected during surgery. In a reconstructed breast, the feeling of pleasure from having the nipple touched is lost. A rebuilt nipple has much less feeling.

In time, the skin on the reconstructed breast will regain some sensitivity but probably will not give the same kind of pleasure as before mastectomy.

Effect on your partner

Relationship issues are also important because the cancer diagnosis can be very distressing for the partner, as well as the patient. Partners are usually concerned about how to express their love physically and emotionally after treatment, especially surgery. But breast cancer can be a growth experience for couples – especially when partners take part in decision-making and go along to treatments.

More information about this can be found in Sexuality for the Woman with Cancer.

Last Medical Review: 09/25/2014
Last Revised: 02/22/2016