Mastectomies and Self-Esteem

Although it’s not the case for every woman, a frequent challenge for breast cancer patients comes in the form of dealing with a post-mastectomy body. While mastectomies save lives and are imperative to the survival of many cancer victims, the loss of a woman’s breasts can be severely damaging to her emotions and self-esteem.

As health writer Diana Rodriguez notes, “women should understand early on that a mastectomy will affect them mentally almost as much as it will physically, and that they should begin exploring therapies to help them cope with the emotional effects of a mastectomy even before their breast cancer surgery.” The loss of breasts isn’t like losing any other body part, but represents (for many women) an essential loss of femininity that can lead to a distorted self image.

In order to regain self-esteem after a mastectomy, taking care of yourself is crucial. Breast cancer survivor Carol Knizek says that using food to stay healthy and sticking to a health regimen helps calm nerves and increase self-esteem: “I use food as my medicine to stay healthy,” Knizek says. “I became a partial vegetarian. I do not consume sugar, preservatives, or chemicals anymore. I watch everything that I put in my mouth.” Thus, some women are able to regain their self-image by healthful and wholesome living.

For many women, however, living with the results of their mastectomy is actually detrimental to their mental health and identity as a woman. One of the most common solutions is to undergo breast reconstruction, a surgical procedure that rebuilds breasts completely or sometimes even just the nipples. In either case, women can either choose to rebuild their bodies or to live with the ones they have. The choice is unique to each mastectomy survivor, but should be carefully considered before making any significant choices.

Breast Reconstruction and Body Image

Just this year, a United States study found that women who get breast reconstruction surgery right after a mastectomy feel that it helps improve their body image and overall quality of life: “Breasts are one of our defining external sex characteristics and are often a focal point for both women and those sexually interested in women,” said Dr. Lisa Schneider, a surgeon at the Institute for Advanced Reconstruction in Jersey City, New Jersey. “Studies like this only emphasize how important it is to offer the opportunity for breast reconstruction to any patient who is medically fit for surgery,” Schneider added. “One aspect of sexuality is feeling in control of your body, and the ability to actively choose breast reconstruction is certainly part of that sense of control.”

Here are a few ways that breast reconstruction surgery can boost self-esteem and body image after a mastectomy.

  1. Patients regain a sense of control over their own bodies.There are certainly misconceptions that immediate breast reconstruction surgery inevitably means that there will be higher complication rates or a delayed detection of future cancer, but neither of those are true. Indeed, for many women, breast cancer surgery means regaining control over their own bodies rather than losing it. The New Jersey plastic surgeons at East Coast Advanced Plastic Surgery explain that “ Breast reconstruction surgery is a symbol of that control; it’s a way of combating the damage done by the unfair twists and turns of life. Whether caused by mastectomy, birth defect, or other trauma, damage to the breast tissue can leave psychological bruises, as the breasts are often a symbol of feminine identity. For women who don’t want to lose that aspect of themselves, reconstruction offers a way to get something back.” When a woman actively chooses to reconstruct her breasts, she proves that her relationship with her body won’t be affected by cancer or other trauma forever.
  2. Restore a sense of normalcy. Imagine having your hand amputated: Each and every time you tried to use your hand, you’d be reminded of its loss and how that loss has affected your life. For many women who have lost their breasts, these emotions can be similar. A lack of breasts can function as a void and painful reminder of what was most likely a traumatic experience. By reconstructing breasts through surgery, even if the feeling in the breasts isn’t the same, their very presence can help make life after cancer more normal. “Skilled reconstruction can help women emerge from the ordeal of breast cancer with confidence and pride. Having won their battle, they are ready not only to survive, but to thrive,” writes plastic surgeon Dr. Scott Miller.
  3. Reignite Female Sexuality. While many women who survive breast cancer are simply happy to be alive, the loss of her breasts can have serious side effects. Some women feel that their partner won’t find them attractive without breasts, and others struggle with the lack of sensation in the chest area. Since breast reconstruction can rebuild the shape and size of the breast, “Breast reconstruction can help a woman enjoy sex more because it may help her feel whole and attractive,” says the American Cancer Society. Even if the feeling in the chest area isn’t restored, the appearance of breasts often helps women regain their sense of pleasure in sexuality.

Remember, there’s no easy “fix” to having a good relationship with your body. However, it’s important for women to know that there are cosmetic procedures that can certainly help. If you have questions about breast reconstruction or how to choose a surgeon to work with, leave a comment in the section below, anytime! We’d be happy to help.

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