- Question from Soccer Mom: I just got diagnosed with breast cancer and I'm so worried that I'll lose my breast and my husband will never be attracted to me again.
- Answers - Rosalind Kleban, L.C.S.W. It's sad and painful to think that on top of the trauma and terror that people experience with a new diagnosis of breast cancer there is added to it the worry of losing a spouse. In my experience with this I've never really seen a marriage disturbed by breast cancer, including when a woman loses a breast. It will only disturb a marriage that was already in trouble. Solid marriages are often strengthened during a crisis. A marriage that doesn't stand up to this crisis will clearly come apart under any crisis, not just breast cancer. It is the goal to see us as more than a breast and more than a body part. We are all whole people. To lose a body part is sad and traumatic, but doesn't change the basic character and why people love you.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. While you may see yourself differently after the loss of a breast, don't assume that your partner feels the same way. It's really true that your experience is not necessarily your partner's experience, and it is important to share your concerns and be open to hearing how your partner may be feeling going through this with you. Usually the loss to you feels much greater than the loss to your partner.
- Rosalind Kleban, L.C.S.W. To add to that, they have done research along those lines that reveals that fear is the woman's representation of what is happening and does not represent how her partner feels. What is recommended in those situations is open communication, and we always promote and encourage couples to resume an active sex life as soon as it is physically possible to get over these difficult painful feelings. We used to almost insist that the partners look at the surgical site before leaving the hospital so that, in a caring atmosphere, you can get over that first, very difficult step.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Often, just upon the fear of a breast cancer diagnosis, many people's sex lives comes to a screeching halt. This lack of sexual activity and intimacy in a relationship can, in itself, be a difficult transition to make. Concerns about self-image and the effects of fear, uncertainty, discomfort, embarrassment, anger, sensitivity...you have a very potent combination of feelings that can get in the way of feeling sexy and having any interest in sex.
- Rosalind Kleban, L.C.S.W. Also, part of the problem is that if a woman assumes—without communicating—that her partner will be turned off by the surgery, she will be less eager to initiate a relationship. And you have the man not initiating it because he is fearful of hurting someone who has just had surgery. His reticence is often misinterpreted by the woman as lack of interest, so everyone is misinterpreting everyone's behavior. So it is important to talk about this. I think a woman going through this experience is touched and prodded and not much intimate touching is happening, which is important at this point in time.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. How do you help a woman develop talking skills on this difficult topic if she's never had to do this before or feels unable to initiate a conversation and find the right words and the right time to use them?
- Rosalind Kleban, L.C.S.W. This is the kind of thing that is dealt with in a support group where women can help each other. I don't think there is any right way. Put a group of women together and they are able to come up with easier ways to deal with things. At the Breast Center where I work we have also begun a class on sexuality where all of the issues are brought out and discussed—all of the possible ramifications of sexuality, of surgery and chemotherapy. And we establish an atmosphere of calm that encourages people to do this at home.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. Another thing that is so important to consider when talking about these issues is to not be judgmental of other people and their feelings. I know that support groups work so much better when people can hear each other without judging each other.
- Rosalind Kleban, L.C.S.W. In my experience with support groups everybody in the group is under stress and anxiety. People are very kind to each other, understanding those stress levels and not wanting to add to it, so they are non-judgmental, like a secret sisterhood. They feel more at ease discussing it with each other than discussing it with doctors.
- Marisa Weiss, M.D. I agree. When finding the words and developing the ability to listen to your partner you have to be careful not to judge what your partner is saying too quickly. These are such sensitive topics that it is easy to react quickly to what the other is saying. The hope is that you can create the space within your relationship to hear and feel each other out.
The Ask-the-Expert Online Conference called Dealing With Breast Cancer Fears featured Rosalind Kleban, L.C.S.W. and Marisa Weiss, M.D. answering your questions about aspects of breast cancer that cause concern.
Editor's Note: This conference took place in June 2002.
The materials presented in these conferences do not necessarily reflect the views of Breastcancer.org. A qualified healthcare professional should be consulted before using any therapeutic product or regimen discussed. All readers should verify all information and data before employing any therapies described here.
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