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Maintaining a Healthy Relationship After Breast Cancer

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By Rachel Winters, Staff Writer

mature_couple_sitting_edit2.jpgA couple's ability to maintain a healthy relationship post-cancer relies, in part, on their ability to interact, relate and be intimate as the patient makes the challenging and life-affirming transition to breast cancer survivor.

"The majority of the women whom I see say that their partners are very understanding throughout their treatment," says Mary Hughes, a clinical nurse specialist in M. D. Anderson's Department of Psychiatry. "Some of the women who are further out from their treatment, however, have trouble with intimacy due to the appearance of their breast(s), or they say they would like to be more interested in sex."

Conquering body image together

Once a woman has had a mastectomy, regardless of her decision about whether to have breast reconstruction, she may develop a poor body image due to the appearance of the new or missing breast or because of scarring.

While some women are comfortable with letting their partner see the scar, others want to hide their breasts. Although it is perfectly natural to have a difficult time accepting any change to the body, it is extremely important that women not project their own negative images onto that of their partners.

"What a woman needs to remember is that she usually is more upset about the changes to the breast(s) than her partner," says Leslie Schover, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Behavioral Science.

"I've talked to a lot of partners, and the truth is that they're just happy that the woman they love is alive," Hughes says. "They're not concerned about the scar or an imperfect breast. A woman shouldn't think her partner isn't ready. It's her that might not be."

Bringing life back into the bedroom

Women who have had a mastectomy often lose sensation in their breast(s) due to nerve tissue damage. While their breasts were once erogenous zones, they now lack sensitivity, which can interrupt or change patterns of sexual behavior.

Some young women may have trouble due to the early onset of menopause as a result of chemotherapy, which lowers their estrogen levels. This can lead to severe vaginal dryness, pain with intercourse and a loss of elasticity in the vaginal walls.

"Without understanding how to avoid pain, many women lose interest in sex because it is traumatic and painful," Schover says.

Partners of women who are experiencing such side effects need to be understanding and know that with time and work, the woman's libido will return.

Expert tips on intimacy for breast cancer survivors:
 
•    Build self-esteem by doing things that are good for your body, like eating good food, exercising and making an effort to look your best.

•    Wear a tank top or a camisole when making love if it makes you feel more sexual, or invest in sexy lingerie that hides the scar.

•    Spend more time engaging in foreplay.

•    Schedule weekly sexual encounters at times that you are less tired and make a commitment to your "special time." This will cut down on wondering about when the next encounter will be and help both parties relax.

•    Invest in both a water-based lubricant and an over-the-counter vaginal moisturizer. Incorporate the lubricant into your sexual routine, and insert the moisturizer into the vagina a few times a week to help counteract the effects of chemotherapy.

•    Don't be in a hurry or try to force your intimate relationship.

•    You may also consider seeking professional help or counseling.

"Remember that regaining a powerful sexual relationship with your partner isn't a race," Hughes says. "It's like a train ride. It's a journey. Be creative, and do what feels natural."
 
Related articles:
Improving Intimate Relationships for Cancer Survivors

Sexuality and the Cancer Patient (webcast)

Q&A: Sexual Relationships and Cancer


M. D. Anderson resources:
Sexuality and Cancer


Additional resources:
Join the YSC Community (Young Survival Coalition)
www.youngsurvival.org

Exploring Self-Esteem and Intimacy (American Cancer Society)

 

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A couple's ability to maintain a healthy relationship post-cancer relies, in part, on their ability to interact, relate and be intimate as the patient makes the challenging and life-affirming transition to breast cancer survivor.

"The majo... Read More

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