Laura Brashier beat stage 4 cervical cancer, but the grueling treatments killed her sex life. The countless surgeries and radiation destroyed her vaginal tissue and made intercourse impossibly painful.
The Rancho Santa Margarita, Calif., hair stylist was only 37 then, and she found it hard to broach the topic with boyfriends. So she just didn't get involved romantically.
"It was the only thing on my mind," said Brashier, who is twice divorced and has no children. "I dated on and off, but I didn't tell anyone for years. I figured if I am doing that, a lot of others are, too."
Now, more than a decade later at 50, she has created a website for others who cannot have sex because of disease, disability or even disinterest, but want love. The site, 2date4love, launched Aug. 1 and in the first three days it had 2,000 visitors.
"I didn't want to be alone. This was the reason I went online," she said. "My reason is to help a lot of people like me if I can."
Users can write details about themselves and look for others with similar interests without having to worry about the sexual part. One testimonial from a cervical cancer survivor said the site had given her the "hope and courage I've needed to delve back into the dating scene."
Can't Have Sex, But Seeking Love
Those who face physical hurdles in having sexual intercourse are part of a large, silent group, according to Brashier. "Nobody talks about it," she said.
An estimated one in three Americans will have cancer in their lifetimes and aggressive treatments can have an impact on sexual function, according to Dr. Ilana Cass, a gynecological oncologist at Cedars-Sinai Samuel Oschin Comprehensive Cancer Institute in Los Angeles.
"Add in depression and that number is huge," said Cass. "It's a meaningful number of patients and studies are starting to look at the quality of life of cancer survivors, their cognitive function and sexual intimacy issues."
She applauds Brashier's mission and said the medical community is "very much turning a spotlight on these questions."
Brashier learned she had cancer in 1998 after doctors had been monitoring dysplasia, or abnormal cell changes, in the cervix.
"At the time, I had never felt better in my life," she said. "I was not in a relationship, but I was dating and a happy girl."
Doctors performed a hysterectomy, but during surgery, they discovered that the cancer had metastasized. "I was devastated," she said.
Because she was young and healthy, they were able to give her potent chemotherapy and radiation that knocked her off her feet, causing a bowel obstruction and keeping her out of work for eight months. She lost 26 pounds.
"The radiation kind of melts you," she said. "[My vagina] kind of closed up on me and there was so much scar tissue that sex was painful."
Single at the time, Brashier was never able to reconnect sexually. "I was having an attraction with someone at one time, and I was going to tell him, but then realized it wasn't going to happen. Who would sign up for that?"
"I could barely have a conversation with him," she said.
After going online to seek support, Brashier found none. Then two years ago, she contacted a successful friend she had known since she was 13 and he agreed to finance her idea for a website.
"I tried to make it really simple and for a wide range of users," she said.