Long Reads

What it's like to rediscover sex after having chemotherapy for breast cancer

Navigating the world of online dating is tough for everyone, but it’s even tougher when you’re recovering from life-saving cancer treatment. Natasha, 31, tells Natasha Preskey what it was like to start dating again after beating breast cancer.

The day I found out that I had breast cancer, I broke up with my toxic ex and moved back in with my mum.

I’d just been starting to feel normal again after discovering I had bone cancer five years previously, so getting a new diagnosis was an almighty kick in the gut. But I was determined to focus on my treatment and I knew that as soon as it was over I’d be even more determined to get the most out of life.

The physical treatments were difficult, but at least with the radiotherapy there was a defined end point. Trying to figure out who you are and what you want after cancer can actually be a much bigger task.

“The physical treatments were difficult, but at least with the radiotherapy there was a defined end point”

I had a lumpectomy (an operation to remove lumps from your breast), four rounds of chemotherapy and 15-20 rounds of radiotherapy – so you could say I had an awful lot going on. I’m still on hormone therapy now, which means taking drugs that keep my oestrogen levels low and trigger something like a clinically-induced menopause. The hot flushes, aches, pains and night sweats all make me feel like I’m 102 years old.

Reduced libido and vaginal dryness can also be side effects of the drugs I’m taking but - touch wood – so far everything’s still working. Still, wondering what could suddenly be taken away from me is like waiting for a bomb to go off. There’s always this looming fear that I might have to go to my oncologist and say: ‘Hi! We need to talk about my vagina!’ Most of my doctors have been amazing but I think sex is seen as a luxury, not a right, after you’ve had cancer treatment. People think you should just be happy that you’re alive and that everything else is a bonus. 

Things had been going wrong for a long time in my previous relationship and we hadn’t had sex for a year, so in total it had been 18 months since I’d slept with anyone. When it came to dating again during my recovery, I was half excited, half nervous. I didn’t want to rush into a serious relationship yet because I’d only just got my life back, and, if I am going to have a boyfriend again at some point, it has to be someone that’s really, really going to understand me. I won’t compromise anything or sacrifice things in my life – my priorities are slightly different now.

In February, towards the end of my radiotherapy, I started chatting to Max*, an electrical engineer, on Tinder. For my profile, I’d selected pictures of me wearing velvet turbans and headscarves so I think he’d twigged already that I’d had cancer. I didn’t put up any pictures of when I did have long hair because I didn’t want to meet people and them to be like ‘Where’s your hair gone?’

A couple of nights before our first date, we had a chat on the phone and the fact I’d been unwell came up naturally in conversation. We were talking about hair – and I casually said that there was a reason I didn’t have any. He just said: “Yeah, I kind of guessed.” So that was quite easy.

We met at a pub for our first date. It was February and I was wearing a parka jacket and a beanie because I was still quite scared of my egghead and, when he arrived, he was dressed quite formally in a smart coat and smart shoes. I already felt not as glamourous as I wanted to with no hair and the hat. But once we got chatting, he made me feel completely at ease. 

“Max asked about my treatment and was just generally interested in my life”

Honestly, he was a bit mad and it completely took me out of myself – really fun and spontaneous and didn’t care what I said around him. Max asked about my treatment and was just generally interested in my life. He made me feel like the only person in the room, and that helped slow the 5000 thoughts that were whizzing around in my head.

I felt attractive, not in spite of the cancer, but just because I was me. I only had a bit of fluff on my head so I kept my hat on in the pub but he said: “I don’t care. Like just take it off if you’re warm, you look fine.”

As we got chatting, he didn’t try to tell me ‘you’re attractive even though you’ve got no hair’, he just said: “You’re beautiful” and “I’m really, really attracted to you”. That was really refreshing when I had no hair, one boob that was bright red and peeling and had basically felt like a human potato for six months. At the risk of sounding a bit soppy and romantic, it just made everything else fall away.

We spoke for hours in the pub and then, when he drove me home, we sat in his car until 2AM just talking.

I started to feel really tired and I could feel my eye starting to twitch. I kept saying to Max: “My eye’s doing it again, look at it!”

“Where?” he asked. Then he came up right close to my face and said: “Where? I can’t see it!”

“There! Look!”

He drew even closer to my face, and then he kissed me.

After having felt fairly barren and bleak for so many months my insides were like ‘Woo! She’s alive!’ Obviously, there are many other things in my life that make me feel alive but that particular thing hadn’t happened in a while.

In the lead-up to our third date, I was excited about the possibility of having sex again. I’m quite a sexually confident person but, after everything, of course I was nervous. 

“When he drove me home, we sat in his car until 2AM just talking”

I jokingly asked my friends: “What if I’ve forgotten what to do?” and they told me it would be – literally – just like riding a bike, but deep down I was genuinely worried.

Would I be able to totally let go and enjoy it? Would I be holding back to protect myself? Did I even have the strength for this? My breast that had undergone radiotherapy was sore and red so there was a whole added layer of logistical worry on top of the usual first-time fear. Should I keep my bra on? Could Max knock my boob by accident?

For our third date, he came over to mine for dinner. I put on a Clueless-style checked skirt and a black polo neck with black boots, with my classic beanie hat. I cooked up a sweet potato, rosemary and parmesan pasta dish and once again the chat flowed. After a while, I felt comfortable enough to take my hat off.

After dinner, we were snogging like teenagers and, honestly, it was as nerve-wracking as if I was 15. There had been so much build-up – not just since I’d met him, but for the six-seven months that I’d been unwell and not being able to go on dates or have sex. 

“There was a bit of giggling, and I was quite guarded”

What if it was really bad? What if I just got so nervous that I did something really awkward like cry in the middle?

In the end, my friends had been right, it was sort of like riding a bike. There was a bit of giggling, and I was quite guarded and wary of him knocking my boob at first but, eventually, I just adjusted, and everything worked like it was supposed to. And, thankfully, I hadn’t dried up like a shrivelled old prune as I’d feared.

I felt sexier keeping my bra on, and Max didn’t question it at all and seemed to understand without me having to say anything.

Afterwards, it was very odd sleeping next to someone – but lovely. For a while I just stared at the ceiling, I had so much going on in my brain. Did I like him? What did I want from this? All the normal post-sex thoughts had this added layer of anxiety.

“In the end, Max and I were seeing each other for about a month – and then he ghosted me”

Since being ill, I am quite self-protecting. When you’ve been through something traumatic, you don’t want to add to that pain emotionally as well. It all felt a lot rawer than I’d been used to - and the feeling of being closer to someone after having sex is really scary, cancer or not. But I was relieved that I didn’t break into a million pieces or burst out crying.

In the end, Max and I were seeing each other for about a month – and then he ghosted me.

That was tough, especially where I was emotionally vulnerable at the time. Four months later, he texted me telling me that he’d felt like things were moving too fast and that he really liked me and it had freaked him out – a classic case of ‘man’s feelings scare him’. I’d always made it clear that there was no pressure from my side so, ultimately, it was just him being a coward and I didn’t beat myself up about it. Now, if that kind of thing happens, I’m more like ‘meh’ about it.

Even though things ended on a sour note, what happened was a great re-introduction to the world of dating for me, and, at the time, it was exactly what I needed. Max made me feel special and what happened helped me feel like me again.

Breast Cancer Care is here for anyone who needs support on sex, intimacy and body confidence after breast cancer. Visit breastcancercare.org.uk to find out about face-to-face support or call their expert nurses free on 0808 800 6000.

You can read more of stylist.co.uk’s Breast Cancer Awareness month coverage here

Images: Getty