Dear Ask Lust,
I've seen that you have been promoting a movie for breast cancer awareness month. A friend sent it to me because my partner is also going through cancer treatment at the moment. I wondered if you had any advice for a partner of someone with cancer? How can I support her best? I feel pretty lost.
I'm sorry to hear your partner is going through this. And I'm also sorry to hear you are too. Something people often overlook is that the partners of cancer patients live the experience too. It may be a different experience to the one they're going through, but in many ways, it's just as hard so it's important to find ways that you can both support each other.
When it comes to your sex life I'd say the first thing you should try to do is stop seeing it as your "sex life" and more as your "intimacy". Sex in relationships is important because it helps create physical and emotional intimacy between you, as well as a way for you both to have the fun of course! But you can achieve that intimacy and enjoyment in many ways, not just through penetrative sex. So try to keep that in mind when you're thinking of ways to stay supportive and close.
It may seem like an obvious one but it's so important. Talk about how they're feeling and what they want or don't want. Also, if they're comfortable doing so talk with their doctor too about any symptoms they may be experiencing. Vaginal dryness and vaginismus are extremely common side effects of chemotherapy treatment but they're not always flagged up initially as things to be prepared for. Just simply knowing what's happening with their body sexually can take a huge amount of anxiety off for both of you, and once you know what's going on you can decide best how to manage it.
Accept that things need to run their course. Just because you may be experiencing a dry spell as a couple doesn't necessarily mean it's forever so just roll with it. It's easy to feel like you'll never feel better again when you're in the depths of chemotherapy treatment. But all I can say is have patience because it will come back, all of it.
The first few months after my diagnosis was a haze of sexual activity because I sought escapism in pleasure. But then the chemotherapy started to take its toll: my libido dropped, I had vaginal dryness and vaginismus, and my orgasm just disappeared. So sex - solo or partnered - became basically impossible. At first I was frustrated that I'd been robbed of my sexual sanctuary and then I also started to freak out that I would never experience pleasure again. Several times I tried to push through the pain of vaginismus in order to have sex with my partner but it just made the symptoms worse as my body tensed further under the stress. So eventually we decided to just take penetrative sex off the table entirely for a couple of months. It took the pressure off and we were able to find other ways to be intimate. So try not to get hung up on anything like orgasms or penetrative sex, they're nice when we can do them but there's more to sex and intimacy than that so this can be an opportunity to broaden your horizons as a couple!
Do you remember just cuddling and kissing your teenage boyfriend/girlfriend for hours on end because you were both still too young to take it any further? As adults we rarely spend much more than a few minutes making out before the clothes come off and we go for 4th base. But it's so nice to stay on 1st sometimes and just enjoy being in each other's arms!
In my film Wash Me I explore the sensuality of being bathed by a partner. It was based on a real experience we had when I wasn't able to shower so my partner sat beside the bathtub each night meticulously, gently soaping my feet, arms, and belly… In the real-life version of the story, nothing sexual happened because I was still unable to have sex, but I remember those moments as intensely intimate just by the gentle way he touched me. If you haven't got a bathtub then you can try massage, or if it's too much for them, explore even subtler touch sensations. For example, I love it when my boyfriend gently tickles my back as we lie in bed and chat about our days.
When I was going through chemotherapy a lot of people would tell me how beautiful I looked. Of course, it came from a place of love so I never got annoyed but it always bemused me that people felt the need to say it because we both knew it wasn't true. Our society's definition of beauty, particularly feminine beauty, is defined by the hair, eyelashes, eyebrows… all the things that I didn't have, so I knew I wasn't beautiful. But it was OK - my bald look was temporary and, although I was looking forward to getting all my hair back, I found a certain liberation in not being able to conform to female beauty standards for a while. I had a lot of fun with my look and took way more fashion and makeup risks than I would normally.
When we focus on hair loss and the image of cancer it's easy to just see a patient and forget that they are still a person. It makes us treat them differently and say unnecessary things like how stunning they look when all they've done is throw on jeans and a t-shirt to meet you for coffee. I didn't need compliments like that, I wanted normality. The same was true for my partner. I didn't need him to think I was beautiful during that time, I needed him to desire me like he always had before. Attraction is about more than superficial looks, it's about energy and movement. I wanted to know that my partner still saw me behind the bald and still found me attractive for who I was, not how I looked.
When I first showed my new bald look to my partner I was terrified. I used to have naturally blonde hair that I was so proud of and I knew my partner, who's from Barcelona, saw me as exotic because of it. So to lose it was traumatic and I worried that he wouldn't find me attractive anymore. When he saw me and my new head he could have said some line about how beautiful I was, which would have been sweet but wouldn't have given me much comfort. But instead, he told me I'd turned him on because it felt like I was a new girlfriend with such a dramatic look change. He then pressed his erection into my back and proceeded to take my clothes off. It was the best reaction I could have hoped for because it made me feel desired by him even with the new look.
They say actions speak louder than words. So if your partner is shying away from sexual contact because they feel self-conscious about their appearance, maybe try showing them your attraction, rather than telling them clichéd compliments.
Wash Me is a new adult film that offers an intimate portrait of a woman re-discovering her body and desire after breast cancer. Based on the director's own story, this is the first explicit film in history to raise awareness about sex with breast cancer.