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Time to Talk about the Sexual Impact of Mastectomy
By Janet Mandelstam
Breast surgery—especially mastectomy—is an assault on the body that can have a deep and lasting effect on a woman’s self-image and sexuality. It can also have a long-lasting impact on her relationship with her husband or partner. Though sexuality is a vital part of life, conversations between health care providers and breast cancer patients still may not be taking place.
These are some of the conclusions in a new Australian study on breast cancer and sexuality published in the March-April 2008 issue of The Breast Journal. Based on an extensive review of current research as well as local interviews, the study found that breast cancer causes considerable stress in sexual relationships.
Common side effects of cancer treatment that may affect a woman’s sexuality include vaginal irritation and dryness, weight gain, fatigue, painful intercourse, lowered libido, hair loss and nausea; the anxiety and depression that accompany a cancer diagnosis often play a part as well. Some partners may not initiate sex because they are disturbed by the changes in their partner’s body. Others may be responding to the fact that their partner has emotionally and sexually withdrawn from the relationship—possibly because she has misread her partner’s reaction.
This research shows that half of all women experience sexual difficulties following breast cancer treatment; about one-third feel that their partners are emotionally unavailable, and 12 percent report either a separation or a permanent split from their partner. Yet, the authors note, “Despite being an important aspect of the breast cancer experience, sexuality and body image are topics that are not often discussed by healthcare professionals with the patient or her partner.”