Caitlin Kiernan is an award-winning journalist, beauty expert, and author of the book Pretty Sick: The Beauty Guide for Women With Cancer. For our “Real Talk” series, we asked Caitlin about her experience with cancer and what it taught her about her body, femininity, and inherent power.
You’ve written before about how cancer changed your relationship to your body and to sex—what was the biggest surprise there?
I became very disconnected to my body when I was diagnosed with breast cancer. You almost have to. At every doctor’s appointment I had strangers poking, prodding and staring at my private body parts. To them, it was a problem to solve. I had to get over my privacy and insecurity issues real quick. When I made the life-changing choice to have a double mastectomy, I grieved the loss of my breasts, which we as a society equate with womanhood and femininity. That loss was compounded by the fact that chemotherapy put me into “chemopause,” chemically-induced menopause, stripping away my fertility. I became an old woman trapped in a young woman’s body overnight with hot flashes, a dry vagina and elusive orgasms. To be honest, it was heartbreaking to accept.
I always thought that after all my treatment was done, I’d go back to the girl I was the day before my diagnosis—but that was a fantasy. Cancer had changed everything about me, physically and emotionally. But I don’t like to be all gloom and doom. There is an upside to this. Being less emotionally attached to my physical form allowed me to get in-tune with my spiritual self. When I started having sex again (quite some time later), my partner and I were able to connect on a more intimate, mind-body level. It’s some dope tantric shit. I highly recommend it.
You’re not the first person I’ve heard discuss how your doctors didn’t once mention the likelihood of sexual dysfunction during and after your cancer recovery. This can obviously look very different for different people, but is there one thing you wish you’d known before you started having sex again?
I would like to have known that sexual dysfunction could be a possible side effect of my treatment! I think every cancer patient has the right to know what they may be facing after the medical portion of their cancer journey ends. As horrible as that reality is, having the knowledge would have allowed me to prepare myself and care for my body with dignity and grace. Because I was abstinent while I was sick and in treatment (for obvious reasons), I was unaware of the physical changes that had taken place during that lull. When I finally became sexually active again, I was shocked to discover that things were radically different downstairs. The good news is there are things that can help. There are vaginal moisturizers that can minimize dryness. There are also estrogen-infused lubricants and estrogen rings that can help keep the vaginal tissue soft, moisturized, and flexible. I was not a candidate for the estrogen therapies because I had estrogen-positive cancer but the moisturizers were a real godsend. Replens Vaginal Moisturizer is to the vagina what La Mer cream is for the face. It was/is my Miracle Broth. The other thing that was really helpful was a piece of advice I got from Dr. Lauren Streicher when I interviewed her for my book. She told me that the vagina is like any other muscle in the body and “if you don’t use it, you lose it.” In order to keep it strong and functioning properly, it needs regular ‘exercise’, i.e. intercourse or masturbation. So, I make sure to give my vajayjay plenty of exercise to keep her in tip-top shape. But if I had known these things earlier on, getting to know my new body wouldn’t have been so traumatizing or hard to handle.
I fought so hard to stay alive that I don’t want to waste one minute on vapid topics or uninspiring people.Caitlin Kiernan
Did cancer change any of your perceptions around femininity or beauty?
Absolutely! What I find beautiful now are people and things that have substance. As a beauty director I’m pitched so many beauty brands, products as well as interviews with influencers and celebrities. But I have little, if any, interest in those that don’t have something of value to contribute to this planet or society. I fought so hard to stay alive that I don’t want to waste one minute on vapid topics or uninspiring people.
Do you have a favorite tip or piece of advice that you share in Pretty Sick?
I do! It’s about cultivating optimism and it got me through some pretty dark days. It goes: “When it rains, look for rainbows. When it’s dark, look for stars. Both are beautiful. It’s just perspective. Find the silver linings.”
Is there anything about your battle with cancer and/or recovery process that you’re really proud of, that not many people know about?
Honestly, being a cancer survivor is way harder than being a cancer patient. Trying to adapt to a body that looks and functions differently as well as trying to adjust to life after facing death, has been a surreal, often difficult experience. Not many people really know how hard survivorhood is. But I’m proud that I made it here and that I did it with my chin up. I’m also proud that I was able to—in some small way—turn this negative event in my life into something helpful for other women.