Breast Cancer Awareness: Body Image and Sexual Health
Your relationship with your breasts is complicated. You may feel they define your feminine identity, your role as a mother or your intimate relationships. Mastectomies, lumpectomies and reconstruction – any surgery that alters your appearance – can be understandably devastating to your self-image and sometimes to sexual relationships.
“Feelings of self worth are often linked to the types of things that we say to ourselves and then come to believe about ourselves,” says Erin Buck, Ph.D. of MD Anderson Cancer Center’s Body Image Therapy Program. “When a woman looks at her surgically absent or reconstructed breast after mastectomy then insults and berates herself, she’s going to feel less confident and less attractive. If she speaks to herself in a compassionate, gentle way – the way she’d speak to her mother or girlfriend who has gone through breast cancer – she will likely feel more self-assured and her sexuality may be less impacted.”
That’s the point of the Body Image Therapy Program: to help women with breast cancer to learn how to increase their self-confidence and acceptance of their bodies after cancer. This program, which also supports men and women with head and neck cancers, works to help patients soften the messages about what they see when they look in the mirror after surgery.
“Our goal is not to make patients love everything about their bodies,” says Buck. “That’s not realistic. Acceptance means that you respect and care for your body despite the things that have occurred as result of your cancer and its treatment.”
Can you learn this type of acceptance? Absolutely, says Buck, who offers a few tips:
Grieve. It is normal to experience loss and grief after mastectomy or other breast surgeries. Allow yourself those emotions that are a part of the process of recovery.
Be patient – with yourself and your significant other – as you adjust after surgery. There is no timetable by which you must “feel” a certain way emotionally. “Let go of that idea and try to accept where you are at the moment,” says Buck.
Celebrate the parts of your body you do enjoy and that function the way they should. “It can be easy to forget the many ways in which your body is not changed,” says Buck. “Yes, part of the body is altered, but the vast majority of it is still very much the same. It really is possible to accept your body and honor it for what it’s been through, as opposed to insulting it for not being what it was prior to cancer.”
Use your senses. “Our program emphasizes using as many senses as possible to reconnect with the body,” says Buck. “As long as it is medically safe to do so, we encourage looking and touching as much as possible after surgery and often our clinicians are in the hospital room to help facilitate that for the first time.” Looking in the mirror is another step toward self-acceptance, says Buck. The sense of touch also applies to clothing choices. “Wear things that make you feel good: comforting, fuzzy fabrics or sensual silky clothing.”
Seek resources. MD Anderson’s Body Image Therapy Program offers individual counseling and group therapy. These types of resources may be found across the nation,
as well as support groups addressing sexuality after breast cancer. See our resources below and our Sexual Health Part I article, which addresses at-home exercise routines and over-the-counter solutions for preventing discomfort during intercourse.
“A lot of women can be satisfied with their appearance after reconstruction,” adds Jeanne Carter, Ph.D., head of the Female Sexual Medicine and Women’s Health Program at Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center. “But, of course, surrendering any part of your body is a loss.”
The key, she says, to healthy intimate relations is to talk to your partner. “What used to work before may not work now. If a woman’s breasts were key to her sexual repertoire, partners can work together to expand that repertoire, incorporating lubricants into sexual touch and other techniques.” Inquire at your treating hospital about available sexual health counseling, or consider sex therapists, who may help couples make sense of the body’s changes and reconnect to one another. “Sometimes having a third party to help navigate that is very beneficial.”
- The Body Image Workbook: An Eight-Step Program for Learning to Like your Looks by Thomas Cash
- Shop Well With You: a website focused on helping women improve their self-image and quality of life after cancer treatments, through cancer-specific clothing, wardrobe tips, products and guidance.
- American Psychosocial Oncology Society: a professional society dedicated to the psychosocial care of people with cancer. Their national toll-free hotline helps locate specific counseling services in your community: 1-866-7443.
- Part I and Part II interviews with MD Anderson’s Michelle Fingeret, who launched the Body Image Therapy Program, one of the first in the nation to exclusively focus on treating body image concerns of patients with cancer.
- The American Cancer Society’s Look Good… Feel Better services, which offer beauty technique workshops to help women combat the appearance-related effects of cancer treatment.
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