What No One Ever Tells You About Mastectomies & Intimacy

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mastectomy, breast cancer
"The good news is, you'll have a brand new pair of breasts!" Well, not exactly.

Ever wonder why we're all so crazy about breasts? Because they're so damned desirable, that's why. This is a reality that every woman who's undergone a mastectomy deals with each day. Society's love affair with boobs is a daily reminder that our quest for self-confidence is going to be a bit more circuitous than other women's.

If you've never seen a mastectomy site, you might picture a smooth plane of skin and scar tissue molded masterfully into a flawless breast by virtue of a miracle procedure called reconstruction: all parts beautiful, intact and ready for their closeup. When Angelina Jolie famously wrote a New York Times piece about her decision to have a preventive double mastectomy and reconstruction of her breasts, I noticed that the reactions among my friends and acquaintances — aside from admiration — were along the lines of, "Hey, she's Angelina Jolie. It'll be easy for her. Give her a couple of days and she'll be back on the red carpet with the greatest boob job ever."

Understandably, the word "reconstruction" is very comforting to a woman who's just been handed a cancer diagnosis — even more so when that diagnosis is briskly followed by an appointment with a plastic surgeon. The idea of reconstruction is like a big security blanket that makes us feel that whatever it is we're about to go through, we'll be fine and dandy in no time. But, as a woman who's lost a breast to cancer and had reconstruction, I can tell you firsthand: it's more complicated than that.

The reality of a woman's post-mastectomy body — and the way it makes her feel — is a very delicate a topic for a woman — and for her partner, for that matter. It's just easier to generalize the entire experience by assuming all boob jobs are equal. Quite simply, they're not.

The truth is, reconstruction  not to be confused with augmentation  does not give you the same or better breasts than you once had, no matter how successful your surgery. Once you lose your breasts to cancer or prophylactic surgery, whatever you get in their place is what you have to live with, whether it's a non-reconstructed flat plane, a masterwork of cosmetic surgery or a botch-job. And unlike an augmentation, which many women feel proud enough to flaunt, no one really talks much about their reconstructed breasts; it just feels too personal.

Losing a breast forces you to learn the meaning of emotional vulnerability. And despite your strength and resolve, that vulnerability will show — in the way you perceive yourself, in relationships, in the protective walls you build. The longer you live with these scars — which are 10% physical and 90% psychological, by the way — the stronger you get. But the most vulnerable of all questions always lingers: "Am I still desirable?"

Just the other day, a friend of mine wanted to know if I'd be willing to talk with his friend's wife, a woman just about to undergo a double radical mastectomy due to cancer. One of the things he told me was that his friend — the woman's husband — was so heartfelt in his endeavors to make his wife feel loved and supported during the process that he promised her a "brand new pair of store-boughts, as big as she'd like." It was his way of saying, "Don't worry about your boobs, honey, we'll buy you a better pair as soon as you're finished with this whole messy ordeal."  Keep reading ...

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