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Meeting the Challenges of Breast Cancer as a Young Woman


Breast Cancer image

Don’t turn cancer into an excuse for not dating or trying to meet people. Like anyone, you won’t have a perfect experience on every date, but you will always learn.

Young women facing the challenges of breast cancer deserve to live full and meaningful lives. You have many options for making your life the best it can be. Regardless of your stage, the treatment you endured, or where you are in your breast cancer experience, you can and should strive for your highest quality of life. That will mean something different to every young woman. We all experience breast cancer differently and value different things in our lives. Circumstances change, too, and achieving your best life might mean different things on different days and might call for different approaches.

Changing Body Image
Females, society, sexiness, womanhood, and body image … it’s already complex enough. A breast cancer diagnosis adds even greater complexities that others often can’t imagine. You may have strong emotions about your body right now, but you can also feel hopeful about adapting to the changes brought on by breast cancer.

As women, we learn early in life that breasts matter. Breast cancer and treatment bring changes to the body, especially to these parts we’ve learned to value so highly. Some body changes last just a short time, and others last forever. With the loss of a breast or breasts, scars, hair shedding, complexion changes, and weight gain or loss, many young women feel ashamed or afraid that others will reject or feel sorry for them.

Even after the signs and symptoms of treatment fade, you might feel troubled by your body’s changes. Your loved ones might also have some difficulty dealing with changes in the way you look. This can be hard on you, too. Feelings of anger and grief are natural. Feeling bad about your body can also lower your sex drive. And a loss of or reduction in your sex life can make you feel even worse about yourself.

Look for new ways to feel good inside and out. A new outfit, makeup, or spa treatment may give you a lift – and remind everyone how good you look.

Don’t ignore what you feel – it can help to express your emotions. Mourn your losses. They are real, and you have a right to grieve. Then, try to focus on the ways that coping with cancer has made you stronger, wiser, and more realistic. There is so much that makes you valuable.

Look for new ways to feel good inside and out. A new outfit, makeup, or spa treatment may give you a lift – and remind everyone how good you look. If you find that your skin has changed from radiation, ask your doctor about ways you can care for it.

Try to recognize that you are more than your cancer. Know that you have worth – no matter how you look or what happens to you in life. Remember to be kind to yourself today and every day.

The Blow Below the Belt
Breast cancer can affect the most intimate parts of our lives; the diagnosis and treatment can unfortunately reduce a young woman’s libido, often for a long time. Emotional issues and physical changes can also affect young women’s sex lives.

Physical changes can come from surgery, radiation, and chemotherapy. Young women may also face changes for which none of us is really prepared: vaginal dryness, painful intercourse, loss of sensation, symptoms of menopause, and worry about sexual encounters. These issues can make young women think of sex as something to avoid.

You probably feel some real emotional and psychological stress about these difficulties. Seek resources and advice, and take some steps to manage these challenges and adapt to your life after treatment. Your doctor, nurse, social worker, or other healthcare professional may be able to give you some assistance. Begin the conversation. Understand that many sexual problems don’t just go away, and some are easier to solve than others. Also, if you are pre- or perimenopausal, talk with your doctor about your type of breast cancer and the best birth control method for you.

Remember to communicate openly with your partner without blame. Tell your partner what’s going on and how you feel. Ask your partner how he or she feels. Avoid judging yourself or your partner. Listen attentively and ask that your partner do the same. Be careful to avoid misinterpretation on either side – it can be common when discussing intimacy.

Intimacy means more than sexual intercourse. Even if you don’t enjoy sex like you used to, you can explore self-satisfaction, kissing, hugging, and just being close. Strive to stay connected.

Turn your thoughts toward the positive. Discover new ways to feel sexy and new ways to be intimate. Avoid negative thinking; it will only make intimacy more challenging. Be open to change.

On the Dating Scene
For many young women affected by breast cancer, body image and sexual issues can make dating more challenging. As you struggle to accept the changes yourself, you may also worry about how someone else will react to physical things like mastectomy scars or a reconstructed breast. You might find it awkward to discuss your challenges – living with a life-threatening disease, sexual problems, the need for extra lubricants, or your loss of fertility. This can make it even harder to have conversations and feel close with your new partners.

Like many young women, you may wonder how and when to tell a new person in your life about your cancer and body changes. Understandably, you have some fears of rejection, but don’t let them keep you from finding the social relationships that will be meaningful in your life. Don’t turn cancer into an excuse for not dating or trying to meet people. Like anyone, you won’t have a perfect experience on every date, but you will always learn.

Find out what you can about this new relationship until you develop a feeling of trust and friendship – then you can talk about your cancer. Consider practicing what you will say to someone if you worry about how you will handle it. Think about how he or she might react, and prepare a response. Remember that we all face rejection. It often has little to do with your breast cancer. And if it does, that’s not who you want to be with anyway.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

For more information and resources for young women with breast cancer, visit youngsurvival.org.

Reprinted by the permission of Young Survival Coalition from youngsurvival.org.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, March/April 2013.