Surgical removal of a portion or all of a woman’s breasts even to remove a life-threatening cancer, can take a tremendous emotional toll on her. After the recovery, she can feel less attractive and desirable, and the loss can lead to a depression only someone who has endured the same can fully understand.
As celebrities and an increasing proportion of women across the country opt for total and sometimes bilateral mastectomy to treat cancer, a research team based at Women & Infants Hospital discovered that the surgery has significant effects on a woman’s sexual pleasure and ability to be intimate in survivorship. This is the case even when compared with women who choose breast conservation through lumpectomy to address cancer.
“Women who were treated with breast conservation therapy after being diagnosed with breast cancer reported a higher rate of pleasurable caressing of the treated breast during sex and intimate moments,” explains Jennifer Gass, MD, surgeon-in-chief and co-director of the Breast Health Center at Women & Infants.
Specifically, she says women who underwent mastectomy and reconstruction were less than half as likely to experience such pleasure.
The doctors say mastectomy does not change a woman’s ability to enjoy sex physically, and there are ways to overcome this sense of loss and feel more comfortable being intimate.
- Keep a positive attitude. Do things that make you feel healthy and good about yourself.
- Love yourself first. Remember that you are still worthy of love and affection, and start by giving freely of those emotions to yourself.
- Talk with your partner. Don’t assume you are not still as desirable to your partner as ever. At the same time, if you miss the sensitivity and pleasure of having your partner touch your nipples and breasts, talk about it.
- Consider counseling. Intimacy and sexuality is a complex interplay of emotions, desires, expectations and more. Counselors and sexual therapists can help you understand the barriers in your relationship and find the path best for you.
- Consider reconstruction or a prosthesis. Either might make you feel more like yourself again.
Dr. Gass and the research team – which included Ashley Stuckey, MD, and Sarah Pesek of the Breast Health Center and Michaela Onstad, MD, a graduate of Women & Infants’ obstetrics/gynecology residency and breast fellowship programs – evaluated the impact of surgery on sexual function among more than 4,000 women over a 12-year period using the Female Sexual Function Index (FSFI) and seven additional questions.
From the nearly 300 respondents, they discovered that women having lumpectomy, also known as breast conservation therapy, versus mastectomy with or without reconstruction were significantly more satisfied with their own appearance undressed and were more comfortable being seen by their partner undressed.