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Living With Breast Cancer: Your Self-Image & Sexuality

Your self-image is about more than your physical body. It can also include your overall sense of wholeness, how you feel about yourself, your appearance and your sexuality, and how you relate to others. Breast cancer treatment can affect your self-image and sexuality in many ways.

The following information describes how treatment affects self-image and sexuality, how breast changes can affect sexuality, and offers suggestions for how to cope with these changes.

How Treatment Can Affect Self-Image

Some people experience changes in their self-image due to the physical effects of treatment as well as the emotional impact of breast cancer. Some of these changes may be temporary, but can still have a significant impact on how a person feels about themselves.

You may be experiencing:

It is important to recognize that you may view yourself and your body differently after breast cancer. Give yourself time to adjust and be kind and compassionate to yourself. You may want to surround yourself with a group of friends and family who can support you and help you feel positive, connect with someone who has experienced breast cancer, or join a support group and talk to others who have been in a similar situation and who can provide understanding and hope.

If you feel like you need professional support to help you deal with the physical and emotional changes you may be experiencing, speak to your health care team for a referral to a counsellor or support services in your community.

How Treatment Can Affect Sexuality

From the time of your diagnosis to after your treatment has finished, you may not feel interested in sex and your level of sexual activity may decrease or stop completely. This can happen because of changes in your self-image, or the physical effects of treatment. It can take time for you and your sexual partner(s) to find ways of adapting to the effects of breast cancer on your sexuality.

Treatment for breast cancer can have the following physical effects on sexuality:

How Breast Changes Affect Sexuality

For many women, the breasts are an important part of their identity and sexuality as a woman. If this is true for you, after breast cancer treatment you may feel that you have changed physically, feel less attractive, or that less sensuality and pleasure is available now.

After breast cancer surgery, it can be difficult to adjust to the physical changes and emotions, such as sadness or anger, which can accompany the loss of part of a breast, an entire breast or both breasts. Other treatments, such as radiation therapy, can change the appearance or texture of your breasts, making them feel more fibrous and less stretchy, changing their size, or causing skin discolouration. As a result, breast cancer treatment may leave you feeling violated. You may feel less attractive, less connected to your body or let down by your body. You may also worry about whether your current or future sexual partner(s) will find you desirable and attractive.

These are all normal feelings a person may experience, and it may take time to be able to cope emotionally with any form of intimacy or sexual activity.

Suggestions For Coping With Changes In Your Sexuality

Sexuality is a difficult subject for some people to talk about, and can become more challenging with an illness like breast cancer. Open communication can help intimate partners deal with the changes that might occur in their sex life. The experience may also help partners build emotional intimacy and bring them closer together.

The following suggestions may help you:

  • Let your sexual partner(s) know about the changes you experience related to your sexuality, both physically and emotionally

  • Enjoy physical closeness through holding hands, hugging, kissing, massage or other ways that feel comfortable

  • Take things slowly and think about what forms of sexual intimacy you are interested in and not interested in

  • If you experience vaginal dryness, use a vaginal moisturizer. If you need extra lubrication during sexual activity, use a lubricant. Both are available from a pharmacy

  • Ask your health care team for suggestions to lessen some of the side effects of treatment that may affect your sexuality

  • If you are interested, explore the options for breast reconstruction with your health care team. Some women find having a conversation and learning all of their options to be helpful, regardless of whether or not they choose to have their breasts reconstructed. Knowing your options, including choosing not to take action to restore or change the appearance of your breasts, can help you to make a decision that is right for you

  • Try to find ways to feel better about your body: talk to trusted friends or family members, seek out someone who has been through a similar experience as you, join a support group, do something for yourself that you enjoy and that makes you feel good. Be kind to yourself and give yourself time to adjust.

If you are having difficulty dealing with issues related to sexuality or self-image, it may help to speak to a counsellor, either alone or with your partner, if you have one. Your health care team may be able to direct you to professionals with special training in addressing the changes in sexuality.


Sources:

Cancer Research UK. Breast cancer radiotherapy side effects. Accessed June 9, 2014.