Editor’s Note: Contains Mature Content
Back in 2016, I was about nine months post-treatment (chemo, surgery, autologous stem-cell transplant) and just beginning my senior year at Colorado State when I swiped right on a guy who lived a few blocks away. He was very attractive–bright smile, muscular physique–and much to my surprise, we matched. As I walked over to his apartment, I was simultaneously hopeful, desperate, terrified, and horny.
After a few conversations and a few more beers, this to-remain-anonymous guy and I began making out on his bed. I remember my heart pounding; this would be my first sexually intimate encounter in nearly two years, and my post-cancer body still felt unfamiliar, like I was Frankenstein’s monster stumbling into the nuance of fine motor skills. Where should I put my tongue? Why was my mouth so dry? What was I going to say about the very prominent scars tracing the lower edge of my ribcage? Was it weird if he could hear me breathing? Why was I even worried about that? What if things didn’t, you know, work how they should? What if it hurt or didn’t feel good anymore?
I stopped him after we were both stripped naked and breathing heavily. “Listen, I need to tell you something: it’s, uh, the first time I’ve been intimate with someone since having cancer. So that’s what’s up with my scars. And why I’m not, er, not very wet.”
He went to the kitchen and returned with a bottle of olive oil, and that’s the story of how my PCHP began.
If you’re unfamiliar with the acronym, Urban dictionary defines PCHP as “Post-Cancer Hoe Phase: an indefinite period of time, typically after (though possibly during) pronged cancer treatment, wherein the patient (or “hoe”) enjoys copious coitus due to a newfound lease on life, a scorn for social norms, or a peak in libido following a long hiatus.”
Even before cancer treatment I had a complicated relationship with my sexuality. Years of questioning my orientation, fearing that engaging in sexual relations was a sin, and committing myself to a manipulative and abusive partner as a teenager left me struggling to make sense of the complex world of physical relationships. Then cancer came and my body was rapidly stripped of its sexuality, put in a hospital gown, and carted around like a circus display for any doctor, nurse, or med student to take a gander at it.
In some ways, cancer eliminated a lot of my shame around my body: if everyone and their mother had already seen it inside and out, why bother covering up? At the same time, my bony, scarred, hairless body felt neutered. I vividly remember looking at myself naked in the mirror and thinking I look like a preadolescent child. And that’s how I saw myself: as a nonsexual being no longer ashamed of nakedness, without even the capacity for sensuality.
Cancer altered my relationship with myself in a very holistic way. When my body was systematically ravaged, it affected my mind, spirit, and emotions just as much as it did my physical form. There was a disconnect, not only from the world around but within myself. Even when I had the autonomy to make decisions about my treatment, rarely were they fully informed and therefore, rarely were they fully consensual. My body in a very real way became my enemy and so I had to disown it, cut out pieces of myself to save what remained. And once I did so, how could I fill the gaping fractures? How could I relearn being a fully unified self? Even now, I’m torn between describing my body as “me” or as “it”; the rift between how I defined myself and what was happening to my body was so vast during treatment that even now it can be difficult to reconcile.
One thing that has helped me work through this reconciliation was my PCHP. You see, I think sex and intimacy are inherently non-dualistic. The body is involved, but, as many survivors can likely attest, so is the mind, so are the emotions, so is the spirit. This doesn’t mean that you have to be in love with someone or engage in high-level tantric practices for sex to be healing; even embracing the physical and emotional intimacy in the context of a “one-night stand” can be a powerful means of reclaiming yourself and the power of your own sensuality. Fucking can be a way of taking up space, reconnecting with yourself and others, and asserting your value as a being who exists beyond the capacity for pain and surviving but for the expansiveness of pleasure and thriving.
I’ve spoken with quite a few friends in the cancer community about the anxiety and fear of rejection that can overwhelm any attempt to be physically intimate after treatment, even if the attempt is with a long-term partner or oneself. After brutalizing my body with chemo and surgeries for a year and mentally grappling with the horrendous loneliness, isolation, and fear that the “noncancer world” was leaving me to rot in a brain-fogged, nauseating hell, intimacy sounded intensely scary to me too, even though I wanted it more than anything.
Our culture likes to portray only certain demographics of people as deserving of intimacy, primarily folks who are “whole,” “well,” or “healthy.” But people with illness or disabilities are often shown as props or someone to be pitied. The unrealistic, trauma-porn of cancer movies like “A Walk to Remember” or “The Fault in Our Stars” fetishize the very real challenges of illness and intimacy for non-cancer folks to cry about and jerk-off to.
Nine months after entering remission, I didn’t want to be a prop and I damn well didn’t want to be pitied.
Instead, I let my body and insecurities alchemize into a magnificent litmus test. In my last couple months before deleting Tinder, I updated my profile to include descriptors like feminist, dirty hippie, and cancer-survivor. Because, as I wrote in a piece for a Cactus Cancer Society Unspoken Ink group, “all of our “problems” — missing boobs, balls, limbs, lymph nodes — are medals of valor. You should be so lucky to witness us naked.” As far as I was concerned, if someone was so shallow as to not want to meet up with a gal who didn’t shave her legs or had experience with a deadly disease, then they could go fuck themselves instead of me.
While I initially didn’t have the confidence in my body, aesthetically or functionally, continuing to explore myself sexually with new partners helped me realize that nobody else gave a shit. And I mean that in the best way possible. Not the rugby player, the lifeguard, the plant biologist, the photographer–none of the folks I decided to sleep with were bothered by my copious scars, by my DAP, or the body-hair that I decided to let grow unfettered since it came back post-chemo. And you know what? No one should be bothered by that.
So long as every person involved is a consenting adult, there is no wrong way to engage in sexual intimacy. In fact, I have found my experiences to be deeply liberating and a confirmation that we are all deserving of intimacy and pleasure regardless of our disability, illness, or trauma if that’s what we desire.
Months after my brief fling with anonymous-Tinder-guy, he sent me a text message that said “ran out of olive oil today. thought of u.” When I opened that text I cringed, but now thinking about it makes me laugh. Our sexual encounter was an exercise in vulnerability, one that allowed me to open myself up once more to the possibility of physical intimacy. If he had been unwilling to meet me where I was at, to improvise for the sake of my pleasure, the remainder of my post-cancer hoe-phase could have gone very differently.
I hope that you have satisfying intimate experiences like I did with olive-oil-guy, though I hope that yours include real lube instead of vegetable oil. I hope that whether you’re in treatment or recovery, you embrace the opportunity to communicate whatever it is that you need in order to feel good. I hope that all your relationships, intimate or not, make you feel empowered. And most of all, I hope that if you do go through PCHP, it’s one hell of a ride.