Fortifying confidence and intimacy through self-expression
Several factors may impact our sexual wellness throughout our experience with cancer. These factors often are biological, psychological, interpersonal, and sociocultural in nature (M., J. et al. 2012, UCSF SWG 2020). The body changes from treatments, surgeries, and fluctuations in hormone regulation. Psychological impacts related to desire and “readiness” decrease motivation and self-confidence. Impacts to relationships (past and present) flare up in unforeseen ways. Norms, taboos, and social expectations weigh heavily on our hearts and minds.
Conditioned to Tolerate the Unbearable
As women, we can silently tolerate unbearable pain. For a large part of my life, I ignored signs that should have alerted me to an underlying problem. The pain I experienced with my period was abnormal. My roller-coaster emotions and dry soft tissues signaled the dysregulation of my hormones; another red flag ignored. I even disregarded bodily signs of hunger, thirst, and “slow-down”, as I tried to keep up with the house, school, work, and gardens – chasing the false ideal of the perfect productive woman. Underlying all of this was the emotional fallout of my own complex trauma. I was so indoctrinated by the myths of sexuality and intimacy that I could not talk to my partner about my painful relationship with my sexuality.
My self-expression and human experience were limited by the beliefs, values, and attitudes I had about my own sexual wellness.
Challenging the Norms
Strategies that can address sexual wellness holistically include talking to our doctors and each other about our experiences and symptoms, getting to know our bodies, working on clearly communicating desires and expectations, and healing unrealistic norms by challenging taboos about intimacy.
I hope to live in a time in which more people come together in solidarity to speak truth to their experiences. I am inspired by support groups, like our Young Women’s Support Group, that facilitate conversations about our experience as women surviving cancer. I still smile internally remembering the YWSG meeting in which I boldly and enthusiastically announced “My vagina works!”. Through my network of support, I gained a deeper understanding of my own sexual wellness and benefited from engaging in activities that promote body positivity and intimacy.
Talking to other women about our experiences and diving deeply into our hearts to illuminate those limiting beliefs and attitudes directly challenges these norms. Connecting with a deeper sense of intimacy challenges taboos and expectations and allows us to be authentic. Expressing ourselves authentically fortifies self-confidence and sustains intimacy in all our relationships.
Prompt 1: Connect with yourself. Consider the four factors of sexual wellness: biological, psychological, interpersonal, and sociocultural. How have these factors manifested in your life?
Prompt 2: Identify activities that create intimate space for yourself. What can you do for yourself to connect with your body and the things you appreciate about it, i.e., take a relaxing bath, wearing clothes that make you feel good, painting, gardening? Use this list as a “go-to” and challenge yourself to intentionally set aside time to do one of these activities.
Dive deeper: Connect with your partner or other intimate relations. What do you have to offer each other? Identify activities of shared intimacy, i.e., volunteering in your community, making dinner together, savoring conversation.
M., J. et al. “Sexuality And Intimacy In The Context Of Cancer”. Topics In Cancer Survivorship, 2012. Intech, doi:10.5772/25063. Accessed 4 Feb 2021.
Survivorship Wellness Program, UCSF Helen Diller Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, 2020