Ask CancerCare

Every month, featured experts answer your questions about coping with cancer including specific answers to questions asked by caregivers.

For Breast Cancer

    Q. I'm 43 years old, married and going to have a mastectomy. I'm insecure about how my body is going to look and being intimate with my husband. How can I maintain my femininity and a positive body image?

    A.

    When it comes to changes in our bodies, no matter what a woman’s age, those changes will challenge how we see ourselves and our perception of how others see us. This can be especially true for women who have had a mastectomy or bilateral surgery since images in the media so often place a heavy emphasis on how women look. Breast reconstruction has helped many women redefine their feelings about the loss of a breast. You might want to consult with a plastic surgeon about what options are available to you. For women who do not choose reconstruction, the use of a breast prosthesis can be a good alternative. A prosthesis can give a look of symmetry; many of the newer prostheses are made of a lighter weight material and come in special forms that can be used in swimwear and night gowns. It’s important to recognize that this is a loss, and with loss comes grief. Remember that it will take time to adjust and it’s a good idea to reach out for support and guidance during this time.

    Treatment for breast cancer such as chemotherapy or hormonal blockers may also have side effects that can produce early menopause, vaginal dryness and a diminished desire for intimacy. Talking with your doctor about products that can reduce symptoms of dryness or discomfort can help. Opening a conversation about your concerns with your partner is an important first step. Many people don’t understand the actual physical basis for diminished desire and feel they are being rejected.

    How to Help Your Wife (and Yourself) Through Diagnosis, Treatment and Beyond (Rodale Inc.) by Mark Silver, is one book you and your partner might find helpful. In addition, you may try contacting Living Beyond Breast Cancer.

    You can also find additional information and advice in a previous Ask CancerCare that addressed body image and intimacy issues.

    Q. I'm trying to prepare myself mentally about having a mastectomy. I don't think I would ever want to look at my body again, much less expect my significant other to ever find me attractive. Not sure what to do...

    A.

    A surgery that removes part of you is a loss and must be honored with mourning and grief. A loss changes you but also can make you more aware of what you still have. Most people need time to get used to the scars on their body. With patience and caring, couples do enjoy being intimate again. The following suggestions may help:

    • Keep a journal in which you can freely express your thoughts and write down all of your feelings, both good and bad.
    • Reach out to your loved ones. Let them know what kind of physical affection and comforting you need.
    • Give yourself credit. Practice praising yourself about any of the things you like about yourself, such as your intelligence, your faith, your laugh, your kindness and other positive qualities.
    • Be generous to yourself. Give yourself little gifts that give you pleasure such as a new book of poems, a massage, or a spa product.
    • Take relaxing baths. Use music, candles, or flowers to enhance the experience.
    • Adorn the new you. Get new make-up that complements your best features. Choose clothing colors that match your current skin tone. Seek out programs such as Look Good, Feel Better to learn helpful tips.
    • Join a support group of women who have similar concerns. CancerCare offers online and telephone support groups and our oncology social workers can help you locate face-to-face groups in your area.
    • Share information with your partner. Communicating your feelings (and having your partner do the same) is very important as you go forward together.

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