The room began to swirl around the immense pressure swelling against my skull. Shock radiated through every pore, vibrating my lips and fingertips, jolting streams through my eyes. I have cervical cancer.
“You’re going to get through this with an amazing team, but we need to act quick”
Behind a high pitched ring in my ears, I knew words were being said but nothing was registering as they muffled. I could feel gravity giving out and my only tether to safety was the beacon of my doctor’s eye contact, so my gaze strained to grip onto hers as I tried to make sense of reality. Her stare was an anchored blanket that held mine in pure maternal care. I ached so badly for a hug in that moment (given the pandemic, touching in that sense was still off limits) yet I was moved by the inch of comfort her eyes were able to provide.
“Do you have any questions?”
My chest felt hollow and windy. My body effectively reduced 1000 questions to silence.
Immediately, I went from venerating my pussy to feeling like she was my main antagonist. I saw my cervix as responsible for this violent inconvenience and I was hurled into a war with my pelvic region.
A heavy cascade of information regarding my changing life and body was dropped onto me in the following weeks. My uterus and ovaries were going to be rendered useless from radiation. This meant I was going to be experiencing menopause (hot flashes, mood swings, vaginal dryness) at 29, and in the end I’d be infertile. The tissue of my vagina would become scarred by the radiation. I would have to either have sex or use a dilator everyday for the first month after treatment, then three times a week for the rest of my life to maintain circulation, elasticity and prevent atrophy. On top of mourning the ideas I held around my independence, strength, and expectations of my life, each bubble of news enveloped me in layers of grief. I felt buried and had very little capacity to do much more than show up.
Over time, the chemoradiation zapped my sense of vitality. Steaming snot and tears became a regular cocktail in my blue hospital mask. I felt like an empty, thin, aching shell covered in thick slime. I oscillated between a spectrum of tears and numbness. Pockets of optimism and joy grew non linearly. My surrounding kin bolstered me under their wings and I had a partner who was my biggest cheerleader with the heart of an ocean.
With the exquisite care of my hearty community I got through the 6 week shit ride treatment and recovered much more quickly than both my medical team and I had expected.
I’d like to say that masturbation was the last thing on my mind throughout this mad process- but it wasn’t. My sexuality was always a dominating force in my life and it still is. I felt like my sex
was threatened by such a life changing event. What did that mean to my identity? My partnership? To my relationship to pleasure and intimacy? These were such big questions to navigate in the dizzying landscape of healing.
As deep as my gratitude runs for the speed and success of my treatment, I can also acknowledge how violent it was for my body. The countless procedures I underwent lacked the pace and attunement I needed to feel safe enough in my body. It all transpired more quickly than I could even begin to process what was actually happening.
Did I feel like I had a choice? No. Was it traumatizing? Yes. Was it potentially life saving and necessary? I think so. Am I grateful? Absolutely. All of these realities coexist. As much as I tried to convince myself that I was reframing the whole dilation experience as pleasurable, my body often felt otherwise. My pussy wanted the whole process to end as much as I did. The difference was, I knew treatment was over and she didn’t. She was on full guard awaiting the next invasive procedure- tense, clenched and afraid. Literally a wary clam. I had a hard time shaking the fact that my new masturbation routine was medically prescribed for scar mediation versus for my own leisurely pleasure. It made my stomach swirl with these associations and it didn’t help that I would often bleed.
Luckily, I had been studying at the Institute for the Study of Somatic Sex education for about a year prior to my diagnosis. It’s as if my future self gifted it to my pre-cancer self. Through the first two courses, I learnt how to embody what it meant to give true value to my pleasure and I could not deny that it was my pathway to healing.
Warming myself up for masturbation became imperative. Making the mental shift from fright to endearment took lots of time and care. My touch was at the speed of titration. I focused on the softness, warmth and slip of my hands. If contractions or fear showed up, I would slow down. I would remind myself to breathe deeply, focus on my tender touch and the security of my
surroundings. Eventually, I massaged my inner thighs and every lip and fold with gooey loving attention that supported my body in starting to feel safe and receptive. Thankfully, I know just how I liked to have my clit rubbed and did so before and while using my dildo. Not only did this turn me on, increase my blood flow and bring suppleness to my vagina, it gave me something to focus my attention on while I journeyed into the edgy territory of penetration. The point of this focus is akin to holding onto a loved one through a scary storm. It signaled safety to my body and in a way that softened my distress.
It took a lot of patience and conscious perception of my sensations to tease my cancer story apart from what I was physically experiencing during masturbation.
The moment was my safe, loving, consented touch going at the pace of my body. The moment was my breath.
The moment was giving myself permission to feel.
Considering that medicalized homecare often lacks attention to our pleasure and wholeness, it would have been a much longer, more precarious route to healing had I not received my
somatic sex education. There is such alchemy that ensues when we trust our bodies to hold our pain with heartfelt awareness and there is liberation in choosing to confide in pleasure while holding the dichotomous truths of our experiences. Through my practice, my trauma began to heal as my neural pathways of pleasure overgrew the pathways of pain. With consistency, my pussy has begun to feel fuller, juicier, and excited. My pelvis began to restore its sense of home after the war it had gone through.
Written by Jess Lieu- A somatic sex educator who marvels at the body's sensuous capacities and the radical impacts of pleasure.