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Having breast cancer at age 39 wreaked havoc on my body—and killed my sex drive too. After 69 blood draws, 22 chemotherapy infusions, 11 infections (staph, kidney, and yeast, to name just a few), and seven invasive surgeries (including reconstruction surgery for my breasts and a full hysterectomy), I felt like Frankenstein. I didn't have a left nipple. Both breasts rocked red, angry-looking scars. I literally couldn't feel large swaths of my chest and stomach, and I felt furious and sad about having my tubes tied. I'd experienced emotional trauma, mental fog, physical weakness, even the loss of my eyelashes. The end result? I was avoiding sex with my husband of 15 years.
Before cancer, our sex life was normal.But after cancer, I sometimes had trouble believing that I was still a sexual being. I assumed that my (awesome) spouse now viewed me as broken, ugly, or less-than. I sought out support groups, but still felt like I was waiting for the other shoe to drop, that my cancer would return at any moment.
I wasn't alone in feeling this way. Angel Wells, a 34-year-old I met through Bay Area Young Survivors (BAYS), a support group for young women living with breast cancer in the San Francisco area, had a similar experience."Not only did breast cancer take one of my breasts, it broke my sexuality," she told me in an email. "I was completely unprepared for the pain and lack of sex drive, not to mention the strain on my relationship. I feel broken as a woman."
Ali Kent, 35, another BAYS member, said she, too, has struggled to get her sex life back on track. "The almost complete lack of sex drive, weight gain, and awful pain associated with sex now is unfair," she said.
According to Karen Whitehead, a Georgia-based counselor who specializes in issues like cancer and life transitions, these are unfortunately not uncommon experiences for breast cancer survivors. "The scars from breast cancer can affect a woman's sense of sexuality and femininity, self-esteem, sex drive, desire for intimacy, and body image," she explained to me in an email. "It is not uncommon for women to feel defective or damaged in some way."
To try and rediscover my withered sexuality, I decided to visit a clothing-optional hot springs resort in Northern California.Today it's a non-profit retreat, but Sierra Hot Springs was once considered a sacred place by Native Americans. Situated next to a forest and alpine valley, it seemed like it would be a rustic, healing escape—and maybe it could help me come to terms with my new body.
When I arrived, I instantly felt worlds away from my normal urban routine of medical appointments, writing, cooking, and walking my dog. After checking in, I made my way to the main pool area, a gorgeous open-air dome with a hot tub and cold plunge baths. Butterflies, dragonflies, bees, and hummingbirds flitted through the tall trees.
The all-gender locker room was right next to the pool. Inside, two women were wearing bikini bottoms, but everyone else was completely nude. I wasn't ready for that just yet, though; in a move straight out of junior high, I quickly removed my cotton dress and underwear, rolled them up and placed them in a nearby wooden cubby, and draped a towel around my body.
Outside by the pool, I chose a lounge chair at the end of the row, wanting as much seclusion as I could get. The male-to-female ratio was about 50:50; there were naked bodies everywhere, but I felt self-conscious. No one else was missing a nipple, I noticed—I didn't even see any C-section scars. Not yet ready to bare my skin, I kept my towel tightly wrapped while I tried to read and enjoy the peace and quiet.
After a while, I noticed a woman in her 70s with her grey hair up in a bun. She walked slowly, with a soft smile, back to her chair from the hot tub. We didn't speak, but I felt a connection to her; surely, like me, she has faced challenges, and perhaps even illnesses of her own? And if she could walk around confidently, I could too, right? I longed for the peace she had in her own skin.
I finally got the strength to make my way to the hot tub, and let myself float and bob on my back with my breasts in the air. It was serene and freeing to look up at the sky while buoyed by water. Later, I tried to channel the older woman's confidence as I walked back to my chair. The wooden deck was warm, and I felt like I was finally ready to turn over on my back and let my breasts be free.
As I let the towel drop, I felt a fluttering in my belly, like I was about to get up and speak in front of a large group. But looking around, I realized that no one was looking at me. I sat back and enjoyed the feeling of the sun on my skin—scars and all.
Mary Ladd is currently the co-author of The Wig Report, a humorous graphic novel about hospitals, hair loss, and major illness.