Re-learning the language of sexuality

Tess Devèze is a member of the LGBTQIA+ community, a sexuality clinician, and a cancer survivor. The Beacon spoke with Tess (pronouns they/them) about their sexual wellbeing after a breast cancer diagnosis and why they are determined to help people move through the more ‘intimate’ challenges they face.

In their career as an occupational therapist (OT) and somatic sexologist, Tess Devèze has had years of experience helping others live more pleasurable and sexually healthy lives. So, when they were diagnosed with stage 3 breast cancer, they were especially tuned in to how it affected their own sexual health and wellbeing.

‘My treatment showed me two things: one, it had a huge impact on my sexual health and wellbeing; and two, there didn’t seem to be a lot of support out there to help me.’

Tess describes the first few months after their diagnosis as a ‘rollercoaster of hell’.

‘I was wide-eyed, just barely holding on those first few months. There were so many changes, new scans, new surgeries. It was like I was learning a whole new language,’ says Tess.

In the meantime, they became increasingly aware that their mind and body were gradually forgetting a language they’d always known – the language of their desire. Their sensory feedback had changed.

‘My sexuality suffered with every treatment,’ says Tess. ‘Six months of treatment, radiotherapy, multiple surgeries, and then the drugs, all had different effects. Things that I had previously enjoyed, like sex in certain positions, were now uncomfortable or painful. I had zero libido. I really felt disconnected to my self, my body and my pleasure.’

Tess observed that the three main concerns of their clients were the same they faced personally: loss of libido, vaginal and vulval pain, and body image issues.

‘Cancer takes away so much from us,’ says Tess. ‘We have to process the loss – of parts of our bodies, the size of our bodies, our hair, as well as the functional changes our bodies go through. It makes sense that when we are going through so much stress, pain and emotional strain that we disconnect from ourselves and our pleasure.’

At one stage in their treatment, Tess developed labia ulcers – something they had never heard of before. They mentioned it to one of their nurses who was able to help them treat the ulcers. Tess acknowledges that their background helped them feel more confident to ask their nurse, and recognises some people find it difficult because they feel shy or embarrassed.

‘I’m a sex therapist and even I sometimes find it hard to ask some things, but it is so important to speak up, especially if you are experiencing pain. Don’t try to push through it. It is very unlikely that any symptom you are experiencing is unique to you. There will be something that has helped others and may be able to help you.’

Tess says their number one tip for someone struggling with sexual health or wellbeing is communication – whether that is with their partner or medical team.

‘You don’t have to put up with it – you can find a better way.’

Determined not to give up on their ability to experience pleasure, sensation and connection, Tess was able to apply years of professional experience. ‘As an OT I have helped people who have lost sensation to regain a sense of touch and sensitivity using techniques to rewire their brain. I thought, why not use the same principles for pleasure? I tried it out on myself after my treatments to recover pleasure and sensation, and it works. I’ve become my own therapist.’

Tess is optimistic about the future of their sexual health and wellbeing – and that of others.

‘Sex was way less complicated when my body was less complicated. Yes, I have endured a lot of loss, but I have also experienced a lot of growth and a lot of learning.’

Tess participated in BCNA’s recent Sexual Health and Wellbeing Conference and can be contacted at ConnectAble Therapies, their Melbourne-based occupational therapy consulting service.

Issue 88
Winter 2021