By ANNIE MILLER
Dating dilemmas! “What should I wear? Where should we go? When should I reveal I no longer have breasts?”
This isn’t something that most of us think about while getting ready to go on a date, but there are a growing number of women faced with this very real concern.
I regularly have women ask me when they should discuss their breasts – or lack thereof – with new partners. Women with supportive partners also come to me looking for advice on how to deal with changes to their sex life and body image after cancer.
Many cancer survivors face challenges adapting to life after cancer due to the physical and emotional impact of the disease. My colleagues and I often speak to women who have said diagnosis and treatment can feel like a whirlwind, then all of a sudden these women are thankfully told they are fine, come back for an medical check-up in six months, but we know they are going home and wondering what now?
One woman really summed it up. She wanted to pick her life back up, be able to support herself and start dating again but she asked what should she say when she starts dating? “Oh hi, I would love to go out on a date but I don’t have breasts, I have chemo brain so don’t be offended if I forget your name and, by the way, I probably can’t have kids.”
Although these stories are not unusual, people are often surprised to learn that body image and sexuality issues are reported as some of the most distressing survivorship concerns. More than 40 per cent of cancer survivors experience sexual difficulties after treatment.
Unlike many other side effects of cancer treatment, changes to sexual function can linger for more than two years after treatment. And to make it worse, these challenges often cause cancer survivors and their partners’ level of anxiety and depression to increase. This makes their overall quality of life deteriorate.
Survivors may think that body image and sexuality issues are personal problems that shouldn’t be shared. Or, they might not know what support is available. This can lead to feelings of isolation.
We often tell cancer survivors to remember that what they are feeling is normal. Recovering from cancer isn’t just about your body; it’s about healing your mind and dealing with the changes in your life too. Cancer survivors can strengthen their self-image by exercising regularly, nourishing their bodies with good/healthy food and take the time to look after themselves. This could be as simple as having a relaxing bath, booking in for a beauty treatment, or catching up with a good friend.
After building up strength and energy, being active can also improve survivors’ overall self-esteem and reduce depression. It can help to talk to your medical team and GP about how you’re feeling, and talk about the physical and emotional issues.
As the number of cancer survivors worldwide increases, body issues and sexuality have finally become recognised as a significant issue, and there is more support available for people affected. Cancer Council NSW and the University of Sydney have partnered to address this issue with a new web-based resource, Rekindle – sexuality after cancer. Over the next three years, this resource will help individuals or couples address their sexual concerns from the comfort of their own home. The project will be the first of its kind, include all cancers and be a valuable way to supportcancer survivors across Australia.
Annie Miller manages the survivorship unit at Cancer Council NSW where support is available to help build skills and confidence to help life get better after treatment. www.helplifegetbetter.com.au
Cancer Council is the only charity that supports women through every stage of breast cancer. Find out how you can help make a difference at pinkribbonday.com.au. Pink Ribbon Day is 25 October.