If your self-image has been hurt by your breast cancer, you need to work at getting back a positive view of yourself.
Are you going to great lengths not to look at the scars on your chest? Your reluctance to face the scars is understandable. But experts on healing suggest it's important to get past this attitude.
Fancy lingerie or nightwear may be the immediate solution to avoiding initial shock. If you want that protection, that camouflage, go for it. Indulge yourself. Plenty of women keep their clothes on in bed. Beneath clothing, a reconstructed breast or a good prosthesis feels very much like the real thing to your partner; it has the bounce, the weight, and the resilience of a natural breast.
Responding to a discriminating market, many small shops offer an excellent variety of prostheses and cleverly adapted prosthesis pockets fitted into underclothing and swimsuits. Ask your local American Cancer Society chapter for a list of shops, or look in the Yellow Pages under Lingerie.
Even for the short term, while you're deciding whether or not to go ahead with reconstruction, a breast prosthesis may allow you to feel more comfortable about your image in clothes.
Easing into exposure
Frilly lingerie can serve as your first step to getting back into a pattern of relaxed sexual activity, but sooner or later you need to come to terms with the changes in how you look. Dr. Leslie Schover suggests four-step "mirror therapy":
- Use a full-length mirror in a private area of your home, then dress up in your favorite clothes.
- Study yourself in the mirror for 15 minutes and pick out three things you really like about yourself.
- After that, try the exercise in lingerie.
- Finally, take 15 minutes to look at yourself in the nude, and again, search out points about yourself that please you. Focus on the positives.
You need to accept your naked body, even if you never did before, to strike a truce with yourself. And you need to let your partner look at you and come to a similar point of view. Take it little by little. Some women find it freeing to walk around their room or apartment totally naked. One woman invited close friends over for dinner and when they had finished, she showed off her new reconstructed breasts, to oohs and aahs of approval.
The final step is being totally nude for your partner. This seems to be the last stage in releasing the anxiety about your self-image. Cathy, in a new relationship, finally worked up to letting her beau see her naked chest—and he applauded: "You really did something big, letting me see you. But I told you before, it wasn't going to matter to me."
With or without breast cancer, some women just don't enjoy parading around naked. You may need to face what you look like, but you don't have to force yourself into behavior that never suited you. Besides, most sex takes place in darkened rooms. When the lights are low and you're getting it on, whether you're totally naked or not may not matter one bit.
"You've got to make peace with your body. After my mastectomy, I'd dress and undress in the bathroom. Then we took a delayed honeymoon. My husband didn't like my hiding in the bathroom. 'Come on out—I love you,' he'd say. 'Two breasts are better, but one is okay!'" —Emily
"For a very long time (six months), I didn't really want to look straight on in the mirror. When I finally did, it wasn't that awful. It was like a patch of white fabric stitched on my chest."—Sheryl
Kutluk Oktay, M.D.