I like sex. But I didn't know that, through cancer, I needed it, to be healthy.
With the word, "Naked" in my name, I am no stranger to the projection of "positive-hyper-sexualized-self-identity." In fact, it's something I fought very hard for in my early 20s, and was adamant about expressing very (sometimes personal) "sex-positive" messages and images. I chose to sexualize myself (on or off the stage) – it was my freedom, my right. I mean, we fought for this as young "riot grrls" and "budding feminists." I owed it to the "real" feminists (of the seventies and eighties), to women and to myself to be, what I considered important: an outspoken, sexual butterfly, flying sky-high, shining in the sunshine, fluttering happily.
But when I was diagnosed with breast cancer, I lost my sexual confidence. It's as though my wings were clipped, and I came crashing to the ground.
When I was undergoing treatments, my sexual life and even my "sexual persona" completely transformed, whether I meant that to happen or not. And, much to my "sex-positive" chagrin, my physical appearance, my physiology, changed my emotional state. It changed how I saw myself, the way I felt about myself, and even the way I carried myself.
Common to many women with breast cancer, I would discover my shoulders began to roll inward, like my body was involuntarily protecting my tender "chest area" (even well after surgery and radiation), and my back hunched ever so slightly. My eyes were downcast, not wanting to meet the gaze of anyone who would know that I was in "a wig," had "cancer" or worse – "Bif Naked in a wig with cancer."
Being the woman who sang I Love Myself Today which, at the time of its writing, was my "empowerment anthem," I felt very guilty about my "not-actually-loving-myself-at-all-today" secret, and I just kept my feelings from everyone. My new marriage, already haven fallen apart, only compounded my depression, and my self-esteem was completely gone.
According to the Canadian Breast Cancer Foundation, these are all perfectly normal feelings. On its website it says, "There are also physical effects of breast cancer treatment that can affect your sexuality. Radiation can make your breast and nipple less sensitive to arousal." It goes on to say that "when your ovaries shut down, they stop making estrogen as well as testosterone," and that "the reduction in testosterone may make you less interested in sex".
Like many women, I didn't have my ovaries any more (having undergone an ovariectomy with my cancer treatments) and I still couldn't feel my tiny, dented, left "lumpectomy-tit" four years after radiation. The hair loss during chemotherapy saw the end to my signature raven tresses, an end to my eyebrows ever coming back, and my eyelashes all fell out.
I couldn't "flutter" my eyelids, or anything else for that matter.
There was no way I could muster up the confidence to date anyone, never mind "be intimate" with someone new. Chemo gave me hot flashes and night sweats, and lots of broken molars in my mouth (requiring a night guard). My radiated boob (the numb one) was hard like a grapefruit and the other little banana remained happily swinging in the breeze. I was simply too ashamed to be vulnerable to someone new.
Many women, beside me in the chemo wards, confessed the very same things. These issues affected us all, and often were detrimental to our "intimate relationships". It made tender marriages (already shell-shocked from the cancer diagnosis) even more fragile. And, the patients who were single (or suddenly single like I was) were left bewildered, lonely, hopeless and isolated.
There is a silver lining to be found, however. (There always is!)
The blessings include even more attention being paid to people's needs. More time taken to really communicate and connect – these things may have made some marriages and relationships even stronger, as a result.
Sex and intimacy and sexual empowerment of women during and post-cancer, oft-hushed topics, have turned some couples lives around for the better! Imagine being made to feel so cared about by your partner, that they actually take more time with you and try and help you fly, and fly with you, together, toward new and improved intimacy and excitement. Do I hear "longer, more focused foreplay"? Can I get a "Hell yes!"
I learned to seek this "inner sexual butterfly" (and to, finally, believe I am worth the seeking, itself) from other breast cancer patients who tell me about their wonderful, beautiful, healthy sex-lives with amazing partners. If they can find this, I thought, so could I.
If I can find this, so can you.
It's an opportunity for our partners to show us the meaning of true love, and lovingly, patiently to help us fly.
Bif Naked is an international recording artist, cancer survivor, poet and activist currently working on her first book with Harper Collins. Loving and living in Vancouver and Paris, simultaneously. You can follow her on Twitter @bifnaked