Most marriages have problems that don’t get fixed. Marriage is a package deal, and in marriages that work, the good things outweigh the bad. But as a survivor, you may find that breast cancer highlights the problems in your marriage. Can you live with those problems? Can you enjoy your marriage even as you contemplate what’s missing? Can you capture the missing pieces in other ways? Give serious thought to your needs and how to meet them.
The most uncomfortable stuff to talk about is probably your sex life and the changes that have taken place with your illness. You may not know what needs fixing or how to fix it, but you know things are different.
Although any serious illness in either partner can disrupt a sexual and intimate relationship, breast cancer can cause a unique set of problems.
You may feel that your body has betrayed you. And, after months of treatment, you may feel detached or disconnected from the pleasure your body once gave you.
Body image issues may also affect how you view sex, as well as your sexuality.
Anxiety and depression can also impact your sexuality.
Many women report having less sex than before their illness, for several reasons:
The breast cancer experience slows down your body. It takes longer to do lots of things, including getting interested in and starting and finishing sexual intercourse.
Sex may be uncomfortable or even painful if you’ve been thrown into sudden onset menopause. No surprise that you tend to have less sex, for now. Many women may have had little or no sex from the time of diagnosis through treatment.
Sex and sexuality are important parts of everyday life. The difference between sex and sexuality is that sex is thought of as an activity – something you do with a partner. Sexuality is more about the way you feel about yourself as a woman. It’s linked to intimacy or your need for caring, closeness, and touch.
Discussing sexual intimacy after breast cancer is a tough, but since I’m trying to share the good, the bad and the ugly as it relates to my breast cancer journey, I need to share something that many will consider an off limits subject.
I was given my diagnosis of breast cancer on my wedding anniversary in 2016. It hasn’t been quite three years. And, I still miss my breasts. Oops! We’re not supposed to say those kind of things out loud. But it’s the truth. Even though I had just an average chest, I miss what I had. Those breasts were mine. They were a part of me. They fed my babies. And a source of pleasure for both my husband and I. And I never dreamed I would lose them to cancer, but I did.
When I had a bilateral mastectomy on May 25, 2016, I never once considered how I would feel without my breasts. My only concern was getting the cancer out of my body. My doctor never told me I might actually grieve the loss of my two breasts, so I was not prepared for the wave of grief that washed over me a few weeks later. I remember standing in my bathroom with my surgical drains dangling from my chest. I had purposely never looked in the mirror while I was naked in the bathroom for two weeks. So, I hadn’t seen my surgeon’s handiwork, plus it would be hard to see through the mesh tape. I was too afraid to look, but I knew I had to at some point.
When I went to take a shower, I thought it would be a good time to take a quick peek. I asked my husband not to come in the bathroom while I was in there because I didn’t want him to see my reaction. I stood in front of the mirror, slowly and carefully, I removed my button up shirt. I didn’t look down right away but kept my eyes fixed on the ceiling. It took everything in me to finally glance down at my chest. When I did look, I couldn’t help but be overwhelmed with grief.
My chest was almost completely flat and I had two long, angry, horizontal scar and funky shaped lumps (tissue expanders) where my breasts used to be. I was devastated. I did not, in any way, shape or form, feel like a woman. I put up a good front, but grieved for weeks. I had no idea how to get through this process. I had no books to instruct me. I had no friends who’d been through it before. I just had to wing it.
At first, it was debilitating, but as the days went by, the grief became less and less. Finally, I was able to accept the fact that I was forever more breast-less. Instead of focusing on the loss of my body parts, I was just thankful to be alive. I thought I was doing pretty well until I had to face yet another unforeseen trial.
All during this process, my husband never mentioned the loss of my breasts. When I was given my diagnosis and I said I wanted a bilateral mastectomy, he was silent. When we went in to discuss options with the surgeon, he was silent. When I went in for surgery, he didn’t say a word. My selfish, dumb ass thought he just accepted the mastectomies as a necessary choice in exchange for my life, but I couldn’t have been more wrong.
Before surgery, we had a really healthy sexual relationship. Every night he was home, sometimes 2 or three times during the day if it was a weekend. No, we aren’t a young married couple…we are part of the over 50 crowd. We loved each other well. But after surgery, things changed. Weeks went by and he didn’t touch me. I knew, at first, that he was being respectful of my physical limitations. Surgery had caused me to suffer pain and fatigue. I had swelling and those nasty drainage bulbs to deal with and those things weren’t very attractive.
After I healed from the first surgery, I did my best to make myself look pretty. I dressed in floral nighties. I put on perfume. I wore makeup, which is not an everyday thing for me. Nothing I did mattered. Months started to go by and there was no interest on his part. I was hurt. I longed for the intimacy we’d shared before my cancer diagnosis. I didn’t understand why he wanted nothing to do with me, but I didn’t push. It never occurred to me that he was grieving the loss of my breasts, too.
One night, I woke up because of a hot flash and accidentally discovered him looking at internet pornography. It was like pouring salt into a wound. I’d been through so much already. I had cancer. I had surgery. I lost my femininity through no fault of my own and now, he was finding pleasure in photos of other women with large perfect boobs. I didn’t know how to deal with it, so I did the only thing I could do…I cried. And I cried. I cried for a couple of days straight.
After I cried, I got angry and I confronted him. He looked shocked that he’d been caught. I made him sit down with me and discuss it. I wasn’t ready to ask the question, but I asked it anyway. I asked him why he did it. At first, he said, “I don’t know.” I told him that wasn’t a valid answer and I needed answers. It was hard to get him to talk about it, but finally he did. He said he missed the old me. He missed my breasts, too. Just the thought of him longing to see my breasts again hurt me deeply. I couldn’t get them back for him. Being able to understand the reason behind his dabbling in internet pornography helped a little.
I began to wonder how many other men had been affected in this way after their wives had been mutilated by cancer.
I searched the internet trying to find information on this subject. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t the only one going through this sort of thing.
I found an article that said, “Many women find that breast cancer diagnosis and treatment seriously disrupt their sexual lives. First there are the most obvious issues—the physical changes, exhaustion, nausea and pain from treatment, self-image, empty energy reserves, and the emotional chaos from the diagnosis itself. But there are also many other issues that women and their partners may not even know they’ll have to face. Yet, retaining intimacy in your relationship both during and after your breast cancer ordeal is critical to your overall recovery.”
That made a lot of sense, but it didn’t answer my questions about how men dealt with grieving over the loss of their wives’ breasts, so I continued to search. The only article I could find was one entitled “Coming to Grips with Breast Cancer: The Spouse’s Experience with His Wife’s First Six Months”.
The article states, “Men reported that breast cancer impacted their relationship with their wives. Some spouses described what they did to cope with the breast cancer, including devising strategies, avoiding their own feelings and avoiding thinking about it and keeping busy. Spouses viewed the breast cancer diagnosis as unexpected, sudden and emotionally overwhelming. They felt helpless to save themselves or their wives from what was happening. Every aspect of their daily lives and function was impacted, including job performance and social times with friends. They struggled to understand why such a thing would happen. For some spouses, the breast cancer was felt to negatively impact their relationship, including challenging their communication as a couple. Not only did the cancer impact their communication, many spouses claimed the cancer negatively affected their physical relationship. Men attributed the changes in their intimate relationship and sex life to: their wife’s changed physical appearance, including her being bald; side effects from her treatment; her surgical scar and tubes; her reticence to show him her scar or breast; her self-consciousness about how she looked; his ambivalence in wanting to see her breast; his own concerns about being physically responsive to her; her lack of sensation in her affected breast; and his awareness that she was sore from the surgery and his fear he would hurt her.”
The more I read, the more I understood. Breast cancer not only devastates a woman’s body, it could also devastate the physical relationship between a husband and wife.
It’s important for women to realize that breast cancer affects their spouses or significant others, too. Most men may feel it is inappropriate to discuss their feelings of loss. They may not know how to work through their own grief and may try to find other ways to meet their needs. It is my hope that this blog post will provide helpful information and shed light on a topic not often discussed. Breast cancer presents many challenges and some of those are seldom shared. By understanding all aspects, the emotional, physical and spiritual, perhaps we can find ways to equip those newly diagnosed with tools to traverse their journey more easily.
Open communication between you and your partner is an important step towards getting back your sexuality.
Partners may be confused or unsure of the best way to show support and affection. They may retreat or wait for cues from you about when to resume an intimate or sexual relationship.
Discussing each person’s fears and hopes and comforting each other can help you and your partner have a satisfying sexual relationship.