Breast Cancer and Sexuality

Breast Cancer and Sexuality

Maintaining your sexuality and learning to love your body again.

Your Health

Sexuality. It's inevitable that this is a word associated with breasts. Yet it is a challenging subject to write about. Why? First, I've always tended to be rather private when it comes to personal things like my sex life. Second, it's a topic that doctors will rarely bring up with breast cancer patients; perhaps they are uncomfortable or unsure of how to approach this touchy and highly personal subject. Doubtful it's part of their medical school curriculum (and if it is, I'm sure it plays a minor role). And then again, there's that time factor we all fall victim to—inevitably, when we see our doctor, any personal topics will be brought up last...if time allows. The majority of the office visit is spent on purely medical and practical concerns, like physical health and well-being.

There's no denying that for most women, the loss or alteration of a breast touches her sexuality on an extraordinarily deep level.

But it's all so very complicated, I think. Yes, the breasts are an erogenous organ associated with real physiological responses. And there's that psychological aspect of femininity and attractiveness. I was a late bloomer, probably one of the last girls of my age to wear a bra, and even when I finally started wearing one, I really didn't need it. But from a very early age, I was aware of breasts, aware of the effect that they had on boys, whose eyes would linger on the chests of the girls who had something to show, rather than mine. And I clearly remember that the instant I fastened my first bra—with the nonexistent cups—I stood a little taller, felt a little enhanced, like I finally "belonged." I made sure to wear the sheerest white blouse I owned, so that my entrée into womanhood would be evident to everyone, male or female.

In the process of writing this, I came to a realization: I was planning to write about how to maintain—or regain—your sex life, a subject on which I was not an expert. It's all so individual, after all. Then, I thought further and was going to write about the fact that the most crucial thing to regaining your sense of sexuality and femininity is having a supportive partner. But then—sorry for all these reversals!—I realized that when it comes down to it, we are all alone with our own bodies. There's not always that someone by our side to reinforce the fact that we are still beautiful and sexy, is there? And many of us might be single—possibly dating, possibly not.

I'm no authority on relationships or fulfilling sex lives, but I can say something about the relationship we have with our own bodies. After my mastectomy, I had to learn to love mine again.

I could love it because it was still alive and functioning. I could love it because it was healthy, it moved, it was still an expression of who I was, despite the fact that my breast was taken. In a way, I traded my breast for my life. I know this might sound a bit pat and clichéd—but it's true. I had to come to the realization that yes, it was sad to lose a breast, and yes, I'd miss it, but it was a necessary measure to preserve my health.

We are really all on our own. Another person cannot be by our side every hour of the day—like when we are in the shower and glance down at our scars or when we are in a locker room and feel self-conscious about disrobing in front of other women; when we undress each night; or when we try on clothing that is suddenly a bit too "clingy" or "revealing" to flatter our changed physiques.

So I think the topic of sexuality has two facets: sexuality in terms of learning to accept your changed body and sexuality in terms of sharing that body with someone you love. The former, in my opinion, must be achieved first. Just like the way I think that we can't love someone until we learn to love ourselves.

I eventually came to accept the fact that breasts were not the only thing that defined my sexuality. If it sounds simplistic, believe me, it wasn't so simple, but I'm here 30-plus years later recounting my story. I can't deny that there were (and still are) times I mourned the loss of my breast; moments where I couldn't bear to look in the mirror. I was envious of the ample cleavages that seemed to surround me. The beautiful sight of a mother nursing her infant could fill me with a deep longing. Suddenly, I'd be transported back to the days when I was too flat-chested to wear a bra and felt somehow inferior.

Here, I'll guide you to some tips I came across while researching sexuality and breast cancer, from one of the best Web sites I've found on the subject, breastcancer.org. (I was truly relieved to find advice on not only how to regain a healthy sex life with your partner, but how to accept yourself.)

Here's the link: https://www.breastcancer.org/tips/intimacy/self_image

See what you think. It makes sense to me. Nothing happens overnight, so be patient with yourself and give yourself time. If you are in a loving relationship, communicate with your partner. This is vital. I've heard women say that husbands have left their wives after their diagnosis. I say if that's the case, then there were more holes in the relationship than either was willing or able to see. Someone who truly loves you will stand by you and, in all likelihood, not view your body with the close scrutiny you give it.

Yes, there's no denying that this is not an easy thing. But one thing I can say for sure is that in time, you will come to accept that not only has your body changed, but your mind has changed, too, and it is my hope, for all of us, that the two will come together to form a strong bond of love and acceptance. I don't know if positive thinking really does kick your immune system into gear—there have been many conflicting messages about this—but you know what?

It absolutely, without a doubt, cannot hurt.

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