“I want patients to know that they deserve to demand more than just life, they also deserve quality of life – and sex is part of it.” (Photos: Jahel Guerra / Monica Figueras)
“When you’re diagnosed with cancer, you don’t think about sex, you think about death and freaking out,” says director Rebecca Stewart.
At the age of 28, Rebecca, now 31, was told she had cancer and started chemotherapy just days before her birthday.
There was no family history of cancer and she had led a healthy lifestyle by that point, having only run a half marathon weeks earlier.
Her treatment consisted of radiation therapy, and in January 2020 she got the all-clear, which meant the lockdown provided plenty of time to reflect on her ordeal and how unsteady her relationship with her body was.
She works in the ethical porn industry and has used her experience of illness and its effects on her sex life and relationship with her body to inform her latest film, Wash Me.
“When you spend different tests in the hospital every day, you develop a negative relationship with your body,” she told Metro.co.uk.
“You have the feeling that it somehow lets you down and you have this real feeling of separation between body and soul.”
It was here that sex, desire, and the connection to physicality became vital to Rebecca’s life in ways she had never seen or foreseen before.
This month of Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Rebecca wants to raise awareness of the importance of quality of life in dealing with cancer, not just life itself.
Part of this quality and joy is found in and through the body.
Suddenly faced with her death, it became all the more important to do things that made Rebecca feel alive (Image: Jahel Guerra)
“I wanted to do the film because I was surprised at how much cancer had affected my sex life,” she explains.
She found that as a woman, sex was not discussed at all with her, while other things, such as hair loss, were discussed.
Rebecca tells us, “Treatment is starting to affect a lot of things and the biggest headline things we always talk about in cancer are hair loss and loss of appetite – which they told me and they did.
“The thought of losing my hair was more traumatic than it was then.”
The director made a film to explore cancer and its effects on sex and body image (Image: Monica Figueras)
Initially, the director’s sex drive was boosted for a few months to the point where she felt “like a teenager” with her partner, whom she had been dating for nine months at the time.
“The diagnosis was like an aphrodisiac,” she recalls. “There is something about facing your own mortality that makes you want to express your life, and sex was one way to do that.
“I also fed on my partner’s energy – I felt like I was diving into their body and holding onto something that was stable and healthy.
I want patients to know that they deserve to ask for more than life, they also deserve quality of life – and sex is part of that.
“For me, sexuality became a big thing. It was more than a physical desire and fun – it became a psychological necessity.
“Sex became a great way to reconnect with my body and remind myself that there wasn’t an ‘enemy’ inside of me, it wasn’t that I was fighting anything, we were together and on the same team and it was still able to please me. ‘
Acting on demand allowed her to feel in the moment and to be empowered by her body at a time when she was also grappling with the feeling of being betrayed by him.
Three months after starting treatment, this post-sex urgency subsided as she faced energy loss, vaginal dryness, and vaginismus, a condition in which the walls of the vagina contract when penetration is attempted.
She says, “It got difficult for me because that was the last thing I could do to feel connected to my body, to enjoy it and still own it.
Her experience made Rebecca learn to hug her body (Image: Jahel Guerra)
“It felt like my last refuge had been taken from me. I’d always thought about sex and thought about the two things that made me feel, “I’m still here,” and they both fell away at the same time. ‘
To ease the pressure she was feeling that was causing her vaginismus, she and her partner decided to take penetrative sex “off the table” for two months and instead focus on other types of intimacy, from oral sex to cuddling.
Even when Rebecca was most seriously ill, when she was so weak that she had to be bathed, there was intimacy in this loving act.
Those sensitive moments run their way through the film, with Rebecca recollecting him washing himself behind my knees and keeping his fingers between my toes.
“You have to learn to appreciate intimacy in all its forms instead of the goal of penetrative sex and orgasm,” she adds, “which I couldn’t achieve either.”
Eventually, after the treatment, her usual sexual experiences returned.
But that was because she was gentle and tender with her body – something that was a challenge at first, with all of the fighting talks associated with cancer.
She tells us, “I found the cancer vocabulary very frustrating and I never questioned it, but suddenly everything changes and I was referred to as that ‘soldier’ and said I was going into a ‘fight’ – it’s aggressive. ”Language I just couldn’t identify with.
“Instead, I viewed this as a cleansing process – something was malfunctioning in my body and I needed to feel compassion for it,” which was reflected in her altered sex life during treatment and recovery.
Nowadays she often has quiet moments where she shows love to her body and thanks it.
A year before she was diagnosed, she was considering breast augmentation and hated her “doggie tummy” (which is now a sign that she is healthy), but when faced with the loss of her natural breasts, she thought, “Not me” I want to lose them, it’s not about the image, it’s about the fact that I can feel them, they make me happy and they are mine.
Reconnecting with that sense of desire and pleasure from the body has not been easy, especially when the cultural focus around cancer is on survival rather than thriving.
“Where we are medically and scientifically with cancer, we are 30 years ahead in our culture,” remarked Rebecca.
“On TV and in books, everyone dies except Samantha in Sex and The City,” she says, who has believed for herself that chemotherapy is the last resort and means she would almost certainly die – something she would Doctors laughed as she shared her thoughts.
“There is an attitude that is just about survival,” adds Rebecca.
“The more people talk about it, the more the medical community becomes aware that it is a problem.
“I want patients to know that they deserve to demand more than just life, they also deserve quality of life – and sex is part of that.”
To watch Wash Me with just € 1 donation, an erotic film on Erika Lust’s platform XConfessions, you can support immunotherapy research at Hospital del Mar in Barcelona, where Rebecca was treated.
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