Michela Quecchia is a third year at KCL and a cancer survivor with an interest in healthcare and the environment. Currently juggling OCD and philosophy studies.
[Featured Image: Shows the lower body of two people, presumably a male and a female, lying with down, apart.]
Books, TV shows, even survivors’ testimonies cannot prepare you for what cancer is really like. The narrative in books and TV shows is often inaccurate and depicts cancer either as a terminal monster in 100% of the cases or as some magically curable illness that will bring you to the love of your life; survivors’ and doctors’ testimonies also do not often stray from the physical and mental. This means that other topics that are still central to human life, such as libido and sex life, are not spoken of in depth.
My tough experience with my own libido and sexuality during and after cancer has taught me a lot of things that no one prepared me for: that’s why I decided to share my experience, in hope of helping more people understand what is going with their or their beloved’s bodies and minds.
Shortly after being diagnosed – primarily because I was not in a state where I would have been able to go through treatment waiting times without becoming compost first – my cancer team inundated me with leaflets and booklets on the impacts that chemotherapy was going to have on my life. These ‘travel guides’ are actually very informative and reassuring, and they do take into consideration sex life; however, they do so simply by warning you of a possible momentary loss of libido, interest, and energy in the subject. They also reassure partners that cancer cannot be transmitted through sex, and that most common sexual practices are safe during treatment (save perhaps oral sex as bodily fluids will carry ‘left-over chemotherapy drugs’ that are best avoided). These guides do not mention the impact that losing all sexual energy will have on your sense of self, or that your libido might stay much lower than it was before even years after remission.
What does it mean to be a woman? I am still not sure. However, I know that ‘Oh boy, I feel like a woman’ is now something I hope to think every day when I wake up. During treatment, the first thing I thought when waking up was ‘Oh god, I wish I could breathe without pain’. This was undoubtedly another factor that made me feel more like a thing than a person: the only things I really managed to concentrate on were side effects and pain. I could feel my vagina being dry and the only look I took at it was after going to the toilet, where I had to check there was no blood. Every single time. I was not attracted to anything anymore, my brain was a grey fog whose few thoughts were about survival. Loss of libido disconnected me from my body in a way that made me feel almost immaterial, a blob of pain and breathlessness, ready to disappear. It was only when my sexual energy started coming back that I realized how much of my mental suffering was connected to it.
Once remission started being kinder to me (it took roughly one year – hang in there) I started being interested in sex again. I was not looking for commitment, but for pleasure. Surely, after suffering so much I had the right to feel good?
Getting reacquainted with my body was a hard journey. Firstly, I had to accept the changes that had occurred. In my case, I have gained weight and my body shape has changed in relation to the steroids I had to take combined with my chemotherapy drugs. I had to learn how to love my shape again, and how to feel sexy and attractive. That’s how I started looking in the mirror every day, naked, and taking it all in. I reminded myself how far I had come, and how I still am a functioning human being. It didn’t feel like it, but I wanted to convince myself I could be able to have sex and enjoy life again.
Sex toys were a huge help in building up my libido and self-confidence again. The more in synch with my sexuality I felt, the happier I became. It started feeling like a was a woman; I could wear pretty clothes and make up and someone would find me attractive. The stronger that feeling was, the more productive I became in other areas of life as well. Slowly, I found myself being able to work for 3 hours a day, or to go for a walk without getting stabbing chest pain. The more woman I felt, the more successful I became.
Feeling a woman is not necessarily tied to pretty long hair and having two functioning boobs – even though that may very well be the case for someone, and that’s alright. Sexuality plays a huge part in the core identity of any individual, and only by losing your libido do you realise how much feeling connected to your gender and sexual identity impacts every other aspect of your life.
The fact that society controls – or at least tries to – women’s sexuality becomes then even more dangerous: repression of libido does not only subjugate women, it also degrades them and makes them lose the sense of who they truly are and of their potential. Sexuality is not just a means to find a partner and be used in romantic or physical terms, it’s one of the many variables that play a role into self-confidence and self-worth. Putting any kind of obstacle between an individual and their body has repercussions that go far from simple low self-esteem: they will be reflected into every instance of their lives, stopping them from achieving their full potential. People are an organic machine that, like any other articulate things, needs all their part functioning in synch to reach their goal. There are medical treatments for every part of the body to make sure everything is healthy and contributes smoothly to someone’s existence, and there even are mainstream remedies for men’s libido, such as Viagra pills. Why is it that women are not offered any remedies or information about their libido then? How has this passed as acceptable for so many years?
The goal I had in mind writing this article was to reach out to all the women who have no information on how to react to their loss of libido ( be this during medical treatment or because of other issues such as menopause or a mental health disorder), but also to spread awareness that this is a side-effect that should be more talked about. It has never been my intention to insinuate that asexual individuals are not fully women, or that one needs libido to be a person. This was simply a reflection on my experience, which I hope will help others going through the same. I believe it also worth mentioning that lots of the content in this article can also be used in support of LGBTQIA+ rights, which I am proud to support.