The Vermont Cancer Center’s 17th Annual Breast Cancer Conference will take place on October 10, 2014. To attend the conference, register here. Patti Johnson, RN, OCN, CBCN, will be a featured speaker.

Patti Johnson, RN, OCN, CBCN, is oncology care coordinator at the FitzPatrick Cancer Center in Plattsburgh, New York.

Patti Johnson, RN, OCN, CBCN, is oncology care coordinator at the FitzPatrick Cancer Center in Plattsburgh, New York.

First came the phone call: “You have breast cancer.” Then surgery. Maybe chemotherapy and biotherapy treatments… Then, radiation treatment…Now, hormonal treatment…

If you are a female cancer patient, the roller coaster of emotions and physical turmoil you’ve been riding for the last six months to a year may be slowing down. The highs and lows have flattened out and you’re celebrating. The “End of Chemo” celebration in the infusion room left you feeling like a champion! You rang the bell after your last radiation treatment and walked out of there lifted by a round of applause from the staff and patients you’ve come to know over the last six weeks!

Now, treatment may just be swallowing a pill every day. Easy, in comparison. Ahhh…time for things to get back to “normal.” It should be easy, shouldn’t it, right?  

Unfortunately, every cancer treatment has side effects. Some are short-term, like nausea or hair loss; but, some remain for quite a while. It may feel like treatment only affected your physical self, but truly it affected all of you – body, mind, and spirit.

  • Your body is experiencing the cycling hot flashes, painful vaginal dryness, neuropathy, joint pain, changes in sensation, numbness and tightness in the scars, and the overwhelming fatigue.
  • Your mind is dealing with the reality of accepting the new you: the altered breast, the “new” body image, and that lingering fear: “will my partner still find me attractive?” Add the financial concerns of unpaid medical bills, possibly a substantial decrease in household income, and it may feel like that rollercoaster is starting to pick up speed again!
  • Your spirit is trying to make sense of the whole experience and find meaning, value and peace in something that has turned your life upside down and inside out!

No wonder you’re thinking your libido packed up and left!  

You are not alone. You are one of more than 12 million cancer survivors – you are proof that there is LIFE after cancer!  Research has shown that at least half of you have some level of sexual dysfunction. It’s the third-ranked physical concern after energy and concentration. And, you’ve told us that is not acceptable to you!

However, research has also shown that while you may be distressed by your lack of sexual interest and desire or sexual dysfunction, you are reluctant to bring it up to your oncology staff.  And unfortunately, we don’t always do a very good job asking you about it.

There is hope. The woman you were before the roller coaster ride began is still in there, although the outer wrapping may look different.  You’re still loving, nurturing, sensual, and sexual. You may be wiser, stronger, more aware of life’s challenges, but still need that “human touch.”  There are ways we can help you adjust to your “new normal.” We can review your medications and see if any of them affect your libido. We can offer suggestions for dealing with vaginal dryness. We can discuss ways to help you get to know, intimately, the new you.

It’s time to open the conversation. Let your oncology nurses know what you are experiencing. Ask to speak to someone who specializes in this, and who has time to listen to your concerns in privacy, without being rushed. Talk to your oncologist about options. Hold us accountable for helping you through this. We can help.

Patti Johnson, RN, OCN, CBCN, is oncology care coordinator at the FitzPatrick Cancer Center in Plattsburgh, New York.  She is one of two sexuality resource nurses there, and she is dedicated to helping survivors live life to the fullest!

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