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By Becky Zuckweiler, MS, RN
Facing sexuality again after breast surgery can be a particularly fearful and despairing time for a single woman. Many single women feel as though no one will ever want them sexually or be attracted to them after learning they have had a lumpectomy or a mastectomy. While this is a common feeling, it is not true. Women with partners also suffer from these same kinds of thoughts. These fears are a normal initial reaction. You will be able to work through your fears, and as time goes on you will find your attitude has changed.
Remember, when you decide to go on a date you are only agreeing to spend a few hours with a new person. At the end of those few hours you will make a decision as to whether you want to continue the relationship or not. This is just like it was before your surgery. Take new relationships in small steps. Take time to get to know the interests, behaviors, attitudes and emotional development of this person. As you spend more time with each other you will know if this person has demonstrated enough emotional maturity and sensitivity to earn your trust. If not, it is probably not in your interest to continue this relationship.
There is no correct time to tell a new partner about your lumpectomy or mastectomy. It’s whenever you feel you are comfortable enough and trust the other person. I think of sharing my personal history as a privilege that people have to earn. They earn it by showing me they will handle my vulnerable side with acceptance, gentleness, and sensitivity.
Remember, telling someone you have had a mastectomy or a lumpectomy is not a confession. You have not been “hiding a dirty little secret.” You have only been preserving your right to privacy. When you are ready to try, start with open communication. This does not mean you have to reveal everything about your experience immediately. It only means you use clear, direct words to convey your message.
Many single women feel they do not really have a choice as to whether or not they have reconstructive surgery. Many feel that it is a “must.” I encourage you to take your time in making this decision. You can have reconstructive surgery done at any point in your life, but you can’t completely undo it once it’s done. You may want to seek counseling or bring the issue up at a support group to help you sort this out. Listening to the experiences of other women is often the best information you can have.
All women run the risk of just “giving up” their sexuality after breast surgery because it is so difficult to deal with the grief they are experiencing from their loss and their fear of rejection. Single women are especially at risk because they do not have someone else helping to work through these emotions. They do not feel they “would be letting someone else down” if they did not work through this problem. Remember, letting yourself down is worse than letting someone else down. I encourage you to accept the challenge. When you finally work through this, you will emerge with a sex life that is physically and emotionally satisfying. It will be worth the effort and you will be a stronger person.
A woman’s age can make a difference in how she and her partner cope with sexuality and the loss of her breast. Many older women were taught from a young age that sex is a private matter that should not be discussed. As well, older women may have physical conditions not related to their breast surgery that have already forced them to change or limit their sexuality. Chronic pain, joint problems, heart conditions, fatigue, and many other health problems may affect how older women approach sex.
Many older couples emphasize intimacy rather than intense sexual pleasure. Comfortable, warm, and tender holding of each other that allows for physical limitations can play a much bigger part in an older couple’s sex life than a younger couple’s. Mature couples may not talk about sex as much or as openly, but often they have gone through so much together that incorporating the loss of a breast into their sex life is done more easily. This does not mean that mature couples never have intercourse or do not care about the loss of a breast. It is a significant loss for them, too.
Older single or widowed women may be less likely to take on new sexual partners, but that does not mean they never do. Older women also have to deal with their changed appearance and desire to appear feminine and attractive. For older single women who may become physically intimate, the approach will be the same as it is for any single woman.
To read more on intimacy and single women, read this article from BreastCancer.org.
If you are a single woman with breast cancer and would like to share your story with our readers, send an email to info@TheBreastCareSite.com, Subject: Single with breast cancer.