A Special Guest Blog Post by Nikki Panico, Executive Director
Susan G. Komen Southeast Wisconsin
I am reaching out to share my experiences, dating after a mastectomy. Since this is not a topic I have heard discussed a lot, I became inspired to share my journey to help others in my situation feel more confident and comfortable with themselves and know they are not alone . A bonus would be to have single men reading this be more aware of and sensitive to some of the real issues women may be facing. After all, one in eight women will be diagnosed with breast cancer (albeit, not all have a mastectomy). So, here it goes—
The doctors said, “You have breast cancer, but hey, the bright side is you’ll have a brand new pair of breasts!” Well, not exactly.
My history with breast cancer is not one I keep secret. However, something I do not talk much about are the challenges of being a single woman in the dating world after having major reconstructive surgery on my breasts. After my tumor was removed, I chose to have a double mastectomy. Two subsequent surgeries followed to continue to shape my breasts so they look natural—well as natural as can be, considering all breast tissue and my nipples had been removed. Needless to say, my body has been carved up more than a turkey on Thanksgiving.
Losing a breast (or two) exposes you to a vulnerability you have never known. Despite your warrior attitude, that vulnerability will rear its ugly head — in the way you perceive yourself, in relationships, and in the defensive barriers you build around you. The scars are 10% physical and 90% psychological. Couple that with society’s love affair with boobs. I was left with the questions I have pondered more then I care to admit – will he find me attractive, will he be aroused, will he touch them?
A couple years after my marriage ended, I knew I was ready to find companionship and turned to online dating. From the minute I decided to look for a relationship, finding a man who would be okay with my breasts was paramount on my mind. I’d read and re-read profiles, trying to determine if I could find some clue deeming the man was sensitive enough to learn about my breast cancer journey, but also not looking for physical perfection in a woman. I was shocked by the men who posted pictures of themselves with their shirts off, selfies exposing their six-pack abs. I quickly passed up these profiles as I assumed that they were looking for that kind of perfection in return and would never be interested in an extensively scarred, nipple-less woman.
As I moved forward with a few first dates, there was great relief when none of them led to a second. I had no worries about being intimate with anyone. This is not a story about my online dating experiences. However, there was a turning point when my nipple-less breasts brought an evening to a standstill. The date started with a very handsome, confident, witty, well-dressed man. After a couple hours into the date, he started to get a slight too flirty and insinuating he was eager to get a little physical. He was so bold as to open my jean jacket, point to my breast and say, “I want some of that”. Horror ran through my mind. The shear panic of anyone seeing my breasts left me mortified.
That pivotal date was a turning point for me. I’m not saying that I’m not entitled to be concerned for my looks, but the last thing I need after losing my breasts to cancer is to be caught up in what I think is someone else’s idea of what’s aesthetically pleasing. Breast cancer survivorship is a club no woman wants to belong to, but I knew that if I reached out to women just like me—others dating after a mastectomy—they could surely provide some insight. What I quickly learned is my experience is not unique and my six months of online dating, coupled with my discussion with other breast cancer survivors, left me with surprisingly wonderful lessons:
• Self-esteem takes a lot longer to grow back than hair. You’re not ugly, undesirable or ruined as I thought myself to be for so long. It takes time to acclimate to the battle scars that will become part of your back-story.
• Do not, for one minute, think you are being shallow for caring about intimacy after a mastectomy. Post-cancer body changes and body image issues are real. Know this is normal and you are not alone.
• Every scar, every bald head, every dark circle, every prosthetic breast, and every reflection in a mirror that you might not recognize anymore tells a story. Look deeper than skin, hair and yes, even breasts. You are who you are in your bones. That is where you have the potential to shine the brightest. It is where your true beautiful self lives.
• Communication is key. Do not shy away from having an open conversation about your fears, concerns or how you want to be touched when the time for intimacy arrives. I met a wonderful man from on-line dating who became a dear friend. As I talked about this article, he shared that he was intimate with a women who had a double mastectomy. He said, “I was not mortified or shocked…more than anything I had questions, but I felt uncomfortable asking them because I didn’t want to dwell on what might be a painful subject.” Do not let lack of communication sabotage what could be a wonderful relationship with a loving man.
• When you are ready move away from the “Carrie Bradshaw Syndrome”. If you watched “Sex and the City”, you’ll remember that Sarah Jessica Parker never would do a nude scene so every time she had sex on the show she’d have a bra on. I talked with a handful of women who only have sex with bras on to not reveal the scars or lack of breasts. Don’t hid by that bra anymore, swing it from your ceiling fan, feeling sexy and carefree. Rock your scars, your prosthetics and your nipple-less breasts!
• Men take their cues from the women they’re seeing, so it’s important to be strong and confident. If you’re uptight, negative, and project all of those things about your cancer experience, they are naturally going to pick that up. However, if you project that you love yourself, you’re proud of yourself, and you consider yourself a warrior and [believe that] you’re amazing, that’s how he’ll view you, too.