October is breast cancer awareness month, a time for increased understanding of this all-too-common illness. It’s no surprise that women diagnosed with breast cancer experience a mix of emotions: fear, anxiety, relief, gratitude. But breast cancer recovery does not end after the last chemotherapy or radiation treatment. For many women, an aftereffect of breast cancer involves concerns with body image and sexuality.
“I used to have so much confidence,” says Regina, a 47-year-old Feasterville resident and breast cancer survivor. “I’m fine now —the doctors tell me I am cancer-free. But I just don’t feel sexy anymore. It’s like when I lost my breast, I lost my desire. I feel badly for myself but also for my husband who was my rock during treatment. He loves me and tells me I’m beautiful. I don’t know what’s wrong.”
Regina is one of the 207,090 women diagnosed with breast cancer in 2010. Breast cancer is the most prevalent form of cancer in women. Her cancer was diagnosed at Stage 3, and her treatment protocol involved mastectomy and chemotherapy. Friends marveled at her strength and perseverance during treatment, and no one was more surprised than her when she began to have body image concerns. “Learning that other women go through this too helps,” she says.
Breasts have long been a symbol of femininity and sexuality. Women with breast cancer often feel that the disease has attacked her body image along with her breast tissue. For patients in their 40s and 50s these problems are often more pronounced.
Breast cancer treatment inevitably changes one’s body. Many women describe the hair loss associated with chemotherapy to be a significant challenge. In addition lumpectomy can lead to alterations in the shape of the breast, and mastectomy changes the physical self. Some treatments, such as chemotherapy cause nausea can and can lead to weight loss.
Laurie, a runner and all-around athlete always had a positive body image pre-cancer. “For me the hardest thing is trusting my body again,” she says, “I feel like my body has somehow betrayed me. I want so much to have a positive sense of my body again.” Fortunately she can.
Body image problems are not inevitable. There are a number of things that can help women to maintain a positive body image:
- Talk about your concerns. It helps to know that other women share them. There are also professionals who specialize in treating body image and sexuality.
- Focus on the positives. Look at ways your body is amazing.
- Don’t let your weight or shape keep you from activities that you enjoy.
- Let others who you trust express their thoughts about your body’s changes. They will likely express acceptance and support.
- Eat well and make gentle exercise a part of your recovery.
- Find the beauty in the world and in yourself.