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Breast Cancer in women

Relationships and sex after breast cancer

Being diagnosed with a serious illness can put a strain on relationships. The effect of breast cancer on a relationship may depend on many things, including the level of commitment in the relationship, how long two people have been together, how long they have been living with the diagnosis, and how it affects day-to-day life. Here women talk about the effects of having breast cancer on their intimate relationships.

Although breast surgery will not affect the physical ability to have sex, a mixture of strong emotions - grief, fear, anger, resentment, lack of confidence - may in some way alter sexual feelings for a while. Anxieties about a partner's thoughts and reactions also play an important part.

Some women were concerned about their partner's feelings, and that he might hide his own anxieties in order to be supportive. Several explained how, after the initial shock of the diagnosis, their partner had been supportive and the relationship had grown closer. One of these women stressed that, while treatment of the cancer was her foremost concern, she also felt anxious about how her altered body image would affect the relationship with her partner.

 

Explains her concerns about her husband's reactions to her altered body image.

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Explains her concerns about her husband's reactions to her altered body image.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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It wasn't so much losing a breast and being any less of a woman, it was getting rid of the cancer that was the main issue.

But having said all of that when you look down and see a nasty big scar where you used to have a nice breast, it's not nice. And it's something you've got to just get past, you've got to look down. I didn't want to at first, I didn't for the first 3 or 4 days, but eventually I did. I looked down and it wasn't as bad as I'd imagined it to be. Although it was bad, I'm not going to flower it up, it was bad but it wasn't as bad as I imagined it to be.

And coming home and facing my husband with this was a bit of a trauma too because I just didn't know how he would feel, and I didn't know how I would feel if he was disfigured in some kind of way or whatever.

But I just beared up and showed him my scar and he kissed it and kissed me, and we were fine again and it was you know as if it really didn't matter.

Do you want me to talk about sex since I've had my mastectomy?

If you want to.

The first time, it's not easy. It's you know, but keep your bra on and just do it anyway [laughs]. It's still the same, you still feel the same and blah, blah, blah you know. My husband actually has just been, he never ceases to amaze me how marvellous he can be you know. He's just been so caring and so thoughtful and you know it's brought us closer together than anything else would've I think, you know.

One woman discussed her husband's support on her decision to have a mastectomy and her changed feelings about her new body image. Another explained how her partner's support and sense of humour had helped them both cope better with her illness, and one young woman explained that getting married during her illness helped strengthen an already close relationship.

 

Explains that her husband was supportive and she is pleased with the appearance of her scar.

Explains that her husband was supportive and she is pleased with the appearance of her scar.

Age at interview: 45
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 44
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When we came out of the hospital, my husband said' "Have you got any idea which operation you want to go for?" And I said' "I'm going for a full mastectomy." And his answer was' "I'm pleased to hear that." So he was totally in agreement with me, which was absolutely ideal.

What does the incision look like now, the scar now?

Brilliant, brilliant, it's very neat, very tidy, it's white and you just get used to it really. It's not ugly, it's a nice tidy job.

And do you mind looking at it?

No, not at all.

Do you mind your husband looking at it?

No not at all, no, no. When I first I had it done yes, I did feel deformed. And I think possibly some of that was because I'd had the infection. But when you're feeling better, then things are not so bad. So now that all the treatment is behind me, no I don't mind the scar.
 
 

Explains how her husband's support and sense of humour helped them to cope better with her illness.

Explains how her husband's support and sense of humour helped them to cope better with her illness.

Age at interview: 34
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 30
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It's difficult thinking' "Well what will I be like?" because obviously your main concern is I just want the cancer taken away.

I personally wouldn't have been too upset because I have a very strong healthy marriage and my husband said' "I don't care what you look like afterwards, you're still going to be you." And when my scar had healed my husband kissed my scar which was very, very important to me.

But it's hard for men as well because, as much as they want to reassure you, and tell you that you are still the same person, it's difficult for them sometimes because they're going through it, although they're not the victim themselves, they're still upset, they're trying to reassure you, they're trying to be strong for you.

I feel my relationship with my husband is a lot stronger. He's a very caring person, was absolutely wonderful through all the treatment. Kept a very good sense of humour through it as well.

And my husband actually said to the breast care nurses when they were explaining all the treatment' "Will she be able to swim after this?" And she said' "Yes, I don't see why not." And he said' "Well that's a good job because she can't swim now." 

And humour is important you know, with anything. If you can laugh through it and laugh with each other, and sometimes laugh at the illness as well then, you know, laughter is the best medicine sometimes really.

 

Penny’s husband massages her mastectomy scar almost every night. Sex has changed because she had...

Penny’s husband massages her mastectomy scar almost every night. Sex has changed because she had...

Age at interview: 47
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 37
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My husband was with me all the way through. Now I have spoken to ladies who’ve said “It’s been really difficult. My husband doesn’t really want to talk about it, he doesn’t want to look at the scar”, “My husband’s a boob man. I can’t show him the scar, I go and get undressed and put my pyjamas or my nightdress on before he comes to bed.”

Now I’m somebody I don’t actually wear any clothing in bed and I still don’t, and that has been the same since my mastectomy, apart from when I had the dressings on and everything. You know we were obviously waiting for it to heal. And for me, one of the things my husband always does every single night, apart from probably if we’re on holiday or perhaps it’s a very late night, I use aloe vera gel. And from the day I’ve had this, my husband massages this gel into my scar tissue, my mastectomy scar, all around under my arm and to my back, because I’ve shown how to keep the fluid moving to stop lymphodema. And that is so important to me, so my husband touches that scar all the time.

Now to me, I think the most important thing is make sure, when you first have those dressing taken off, that he, or your partner, is with you to see it at the first stage.

Because, at the end of the day, you’re still the same person, you’ve still got your same personality. And talk. I think the most important thing for me is to talk to each other.

And from a, you know, from a sexual point of view, yes our sex life has changed. But I think a lot of that has been down to me being menopausal as well, hot flushes, “Oh gosh, I’m all hot.” Yes, I’ve gone through the vaginal dryness. However, it’s so important that you discuss those things and talk to your doctor. Because there are so many things now to assist and not to be frightened to go and ask.

Some women said that their partner found their illness difficult to discuss. One described how this led to feelings of anger towards her husband, as well as a lack of interest in sex. Another woman described problems of communication with her partner and her feelings of rejection. Both of these women, however, also noted improvements with time.

 

Explains her feelings of anger towards her husband and lack of interest in sex, but that their...

Explains her feelings of anger towards her husband and lack of interest in sex, but that their...

Age at interview: 43
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 43
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And I was angry, I was angry with my husband. I was very angry with him because he can't deal with it if I'm not being a strong person. I've always been the strong person in the relationship and he just can't cope with it.

He shuts down, and he doesn't talk to me. He hasn't coped really. And I got angry with him and kind of locked in really for a long time.

But we are getting better now and it's, it's hard I think. I think it's harder for your partner than it is for you. Very hard. I think for [my husband] as well I know he wanted to have sex after the soreness went away. And I said to him, I just didn't feel like sex.

I really didn't feel like sex at all, and I still don't. And I think he felt that I was rejecting him and maybe he closed down. And I was in a way, I mean the furthest thing from your mind is having sex. I want a cuddle or just to be held or to talk, you know. I don't feel like sex and I still don't.

I don't know whether that's the tamoxifen or the depression or what it is. And that's hard for him.

But we're talking about it now and I think he knows that hopefully it won't last forever.You know it's difficult I think, very difficult.

What about the scar, how does he cope with that?

Oh yeah, I don't think that bothers him at all.

I mean this breast is bigger than my other breast now, just because it's got that kind of scar tissue underneath where they, having to operate twice makes it a bit more bumpy I think.

I'm a bit lopsided but I don't worry too much about things like that.
 
 

Explains the feelings of doubt and rejection she had but that she and her partner are now closer.

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Explains the feelings of doubt and rejection she had but that she and her partner are now closer.

Age at interview: 55
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 52
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You know how most men have a favourite part of the anatomy, my husband's happens to be the breast.

So I did think that that would be difficult for him and me, if I ever talk to him about it now all he'll say is that he would rather have me with one breast or no breast than not have me at all. But that's what he says to me, I don't think that is necessarily what he thinks.

Before all this happened if I was getting ready for bed at night, maybe I was getting changed in the sitting room and he was sitting on the settee, he would put down his paper or stop watching television, fold his arms and just sit and watch me getting undressed. And that stopped after I had the mastectomy.

And then the other thing that I found very upsetting, and I found it really quite difficult to broach with him and I think I did eventually, but again it's the same situation, you felt as if you were prompting.

When before I had my mastectomy, if we were making love the nightie always got whipped off, and then afterwards it didn't come off at all and I found that really difficult because I thought well he obviously thinks I'm ugly.

But it's, you still feel rejected in a way because you just feel that it can't be the same any more no matter how much he says that it doesn't matter, because it must matter, it must make a difference.

But this has definitely brought us a lot, lot closer together and it must be visible. People are not aware why, but if we meet people they always say there's something about us.

And I think we are, we're very close, we're very close.

One woman described how a disintegrating relationship broke under the strain of her illness. Another explained her partner's difficulties in coping with her diagnosis and the eventual break-up of the marriage.

 

Discusses the break up of her marriage under the strain of her illness.

Discusses the break up of her marriage under the strain of her illness.

Age at interview: 57
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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Then I had a month off when I finished chemotherapy, before I started radiotherapy.

And, I suppose at that point, I knew, at that point, that my husband emotionally had left me, at the end of the chemotherapy. It puts relationships through quite a lot of strain. I didn't really understand that then. I know a lot, lot more about that now. I think particularly, I think men do find it difficult. Maybe we as women do so much and are there as this sort of, maybe a mother figure a lot of the time.

But he, he found it so difficult and from that moment, before I started radiotherapy, he wasn't there for me, which was very traumatising at the time. And I knew he was depressed and I knew he wasn't coping but he wouldn't, he wouldn't go and see anybody. So that, that was, that's been a huge hurdle to get over. And I think I'm just coming out of the black tunnel now.
 

One young woman wondered whether issues about body image would affect future relationships, while two women explained that, despite doubts about the possibility of future relationships, they had met new partners.

 

Explains that, despite her doubts about future relationships, she has met a new partner.

Explains that, despite her doubts about future relationships, she has met a new partner.

Age at interview: 56
Sex: Female
Age at diagnosis: 54
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And I felt and believed that the romance in my life was completely over, that I was never going to be desired or feel desirable or have any sense of desire myself. That I was going to have something awful done to my breast. I would not be a woman in that sense any more.

But I was fortunate it was small it was a lumpectomy and in reality I have an almost indistinguishable scar in a very good position. It's about on the bra line, on the side, underneath my arm.

And my right breast is very slightly smaller than my left breast, but with a good bra you just never notice it.

You feel a sense of invasion and you go through a very bad patch of self doubt. But you come out the other side.

And I have a very happy ever after story because as a result of my diagnosis I met the most wonderful man in the world who could cope with it because his wife died six years ago of lung cancer. And I've found a new partner for life and that's absolutely wonderful. So there was life after breast cancer.
 

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Last reviewed August 2018.
Last updated June 2010.

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