Drug induced loss of libido after breast cancer

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Drug induced loss of libido after breast cancer

A true story of how Tamoxifen and Armidex decreased libido (until it didn’t)

I am not telling you stories. When they gave me the medications, Tamoxifen, after the first diagnosis and Arimidex after the second, I’m sure I didn’t read the side effects describing the possible loss of libido.

By then, I’d had tests and surgeries and harsh chemical treatments for my breast cancer, which thankfully did improve. I knew that at the end of the list of side effects, pretty much on any pill bottle, there is the usual disclaimer “in rare cases, may cause death.” So, I thought, I might end up dead by having the treatment, surgery, medication in any case, so why would I read the label.

At the time, whenever I experienced what could be a side effect, I’d have someone else read the list and advise me. I didn’t want to read the list myself, because I knew I was very susceptible to suggestions.

If my foot tingled or felt numb, my lover read up on the medication and told me it was a side effect. It was a weird feeling, but at least it let me know that I was still alive.

With those two medications, if I had read about the possible effects, it probably said “reduced libido” or “decreased sexual desire.” It turned out that for me, it should have read, “Will experience absolutely no sexual desire and will be incapable of having an orgasm.” Advise the patient that you “may want to f*** your brains out before the first dose as you may find you never do again.”

Even if I had been told exactly what I would experience in advance, that I would have drug-induced loss of libido, I would not have realized it meant so many memories would be stolen from me. Memories of lust, passion, sexual pleasure, making love.

I casually thought memory was in the mind, was visual, but it is the body that stores the types of memories I lost. I was transformed into a creature with no passion, and no memory of ever having felt it. I’d look at my altered body and wonder about what I saw.


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Could it even be called a chest? It looked neither male nor female, no nipples, just scars, and concave skin where breasts used to be. I thought to myself, “you are a freak.”

That thought did not make me feel anything at all. When I feel nothing, that thought will haunt me until I do feel something. But at the time, I felt nothing at all. It just sat in my head like a fact.

Breasts, out in the world, are two bumps under a shirt, a blouse, a tank top. And when someone looks at the bumps, what they see is just their imagination. There might be something there, or there might be removable silicone prostheses that the woman could pull out on the street. Just to shock someone. It crosses my mind that I would like to do that sometimes.

With my altered body, when I climbed in bed at night, I felt like I’d been Frankensteined. And the woman next to me, knowing I had no desire, did not touch me. I don’t know if she wanted me to touch her, but I didn’t. I feared I might repel her. I still called her my lover, even after nine years of no lovemaking. Is that allowed?

So another year passed, and after a decade, I was told to stop the dose. I didn’t know if the drug-induced loss of libido was permanent.

Alone at home, I reached for Winterson’s The Passion from the living room bookcase. Since I had no passion, hadn’t in 10 years, I would read about someone else’s. I’d read the book years before, I remembered it was special.

I came to a section about a mysterious Venetian woman.

And I stopped and reread it. Then again, once more.

“I want this woman, I WANT her.”

The author had given just enough details for me to want that woman and left out just enough so I could fill in the rest and make her my own. I walked into the bedroom, and in my imagination, took her along.

We started making love. I felt lust and desire and passion growing in me, and all my stolen memories started flowing back in. After years encased in a shell, I was now getting bigger and bigger, and the shell was cracking, and pieces were falling to the floor, and when I emerged in full, I climaxed.

I was restored.

That is some book.

It should have a label WARNING: Possible Side Effects.

In rare cases, reading this book may lead to orgasm.

Article by
Ada Harrigan

Ada Harrigan is an author living in San Francisco. Ada’s essay My Body: A Map of Memories, was included in the anthology Cancer as a Women's Issue and she has twice been a non-fiction finalist in the San Francisco Writer's Conference Writing Contest.


With my altered body, when I climbed in bed at night, I felt like I'd been Frankensteined. And the woman next to me, knowing I had no desire, did not touch me. This is what happens you have a drug induced loss of libido.