Body image concerns after breast cancer are normal. Body-changing surgery can certainly affect how one looks and feels. Cancer treatment is no friend to self esteem. Wanting or needing to feel “normal” again is a justified desire. Here we offer some psychological tips and wisdom about breast cancer beauty from both research and from our interview with psychologist Steven Ames of the Mayo Clinic Breast Center.
Breast Cancer Beauty: In the Mind’s Eye
It’s important to try to focus on the positive. Look for some peace and gratitude, especially with new relationships with caregivers and other women who are going through the same battle. Finding an awareness and appreciation that life is short and special can bring that peace needed to help rebuild not only your breasts (if you choose to do so), but your self-esteem and your life. Some women can discover a newfound appreciation for the strength of their bodies after going through cancer and breast reconstruction. A shift in your priorities, the clarity about meaning in your life, and the personal goals you set will move you forward in a positive force.
Researchers have found that a woman’s psychological response to breast cancer surgery is extremely personal and will frequently depend on her age, the attitudes about her body image and sexuality before cancer, and whether the mastectomy will be accompanied by therapy, like radiation and chemotherapy. All of these factors will play into the new image that she paints of herself.
Different Procedures and Impacts to Self-Esteem
It was a general belief that a lumpectomy could leave women less psychologically scarred than a mastectomy, but recent studies have failed to support that premise. Many of the studies conducted since the 1980s show that women who have had a lumpectomy or a mastectomy are comparable in their overall self-image and psychological health. When it comes to personal body image and a sense of attractiveness to their partners, women who have had mastectomies clearly possess more self-doubt.
There is no definitive study that shows the effect mastectomies and lumpectomies have on self-esteem and body image. A small U.S. study at Emory University, published in the Annals of Plastic Surgery in 2015, shows that women who had breast reconstruction immediately following a mastectomy felt it improved their body image and the overall quality of life. The study involved 96 women who had mastectomies followed by immediate breast reconstruction. Generally the findings showed most of the women believed their new breasts were as vital to their sexuality, femininity and relationships as their original breasts.
Some of the specific percentages from the study showed 86 percent of the women felt their breasts were as important to their self-confidence as they were before the procedure, 84 percent said the same thing about their femininity, and 62 percent said the same thing about their sexuality. The study also showed that women older than 50 were more likely than younger women to disagree that their breasts played a large part of their femininity.
But Let’s Talk to a Professional
Dr. Ames spoke to imtakingcharge.com about a woman’s body image after mastectomy and reconstruction.
“There are so many different factors that could affect that, because there are a percentage of women who go on and choose not have reconstruction,” he said.
He believes a certain segment would say the concerns about changes to their body aren’t significant enough to warrant reconstruction. He believes overall this is a very sensitive and complex topic.
Age isn’t always a factor; sometimes it’s circumstance. A woman of any age who is still dating might place more importance on her body image and the significant changes a mastectomy or lumpectomy have brought to her breasts and the view of her own femininity.
“Other women may feel they’ve been married for 40 years, and it isn’t such a big deal,” he said. “Body image is just all over the place.”
At the end of the day, he believes most women desire reconstruction. The fighting spirit, or as it is known in psychology, “positive avoidance” challenges the normal view that avoiding something that someone is dealing with is not a good way to manage the situation. When it concerns a health related issue, doing what you need to do is important, but then comes the time to move forward, and get on with your life.
“The lack of breasts is a reminder to yourself of what you are going through, keeping you stuck in your medical condition. Other people can see it, and then they want to engage you in your illness. It reminds you,” he explained.
Dr. Ames also believes that not everyone needs to see a psychologist to deal with these issues. He thinks most people are capable of managing issues on our own.
“In truth, we as psychologists don’t have special knowledge or magic solutions,” he said. “Where we are helpful is where someone is stuck with something, when it escapes your capabilities.”
Education about the situation is the best way to gain confidence in the path. Dr. Ames explained that most surgeons do an excellent job laying out reasonable expectations. So they know what to expect realistically.
“Women are pretty satisfied by what I gather,” he said.
Breast Cancer Beauty: Some Final Advice
Dr. Ames’ final advice to women is to continue to engage in the things that they value and are meaningful.
“Because that’s what most of us want to do, those things that are most important to us. If you are struggling it’s important to just get back to that,” he said. “And re-engage in your life.”
Try to focus on the love and support from family, from old friends, and from the friends that you will gain along this new path in your life.
We welcome our readers to share their personal tips on maintaining self-esteem and being a true breast cancer beauty!