Aug 31 2010

Cancer Chronicles — answers re: sexuality

One of the questions I was asked after putting up the recent “questions” post was:  “Since breasts are essentially secondary sex organs, do you find that your sexuality has changed since the surgery?”

I had an immediate response to this one, and another response after giving it some thought, I’ll share both here.

The immediate response was no, I don’t think my sexuality changed much due to the surgery and loss of breast.  I think current stress in the family causing at least my husband to have a temporary libido decrease has affected my daily sexuality more than the surgery has.  (Though we’re certainly doing what we can as energy levels permit, enjoyably!) I’ve certainly found that the cliché of an increased libido from the “new lease on life” effect of narrowly missing death has been reasonably true in my case; I’m interested in sex most days, though sometimes the physical energy doesn’t cooperate with the desire.  I also find it easy to take care of those needs myself when a partner isn’t available, but that’s not much different from pre-cancer attitudes.

One thing that I think has drastically helped my new body-shape perception internally has been the across-the-board acceptance of how I look from family and friends.  I’m told I look great, the scar is “neat” or “pretty”, and all of this matches how I feel.  Certainly early on after surgery there were some body image issues coming up periodically for me, but they were much easier not to internalize as truth due to the awesome support I received.

Another thing that sounds opposite to the above but has still contributed to a very comfortable body image is my assumption that for MOST random strangers I will meet or encounter, I will be Other and not a sexually attractive being.  Not only do we monkeys have a biological tendency to prefer symmetry of form, but our culture in America has an unhealthy obsession with mammary tissue.  So I do tend to assume that most people will not be checking me out in a crowd.  This perversely has freed me up to think about it even less than I did before — which wasn’t much — and dress how I please, look how I please, and walk as if I’m a gorgeous goddess even more easily than pre-cancer.  I also tend to assume that anyone worth paying attention to will be able to see the attractiveness in front of them and not get fixated on blemish-free symmetry.

After some thought, I think a couple of things have changed.  In general, I don’t really perceive breasts as sexual organs, though I’ll still notice with aesthetic appreciation someone with a particularly well-sculpted set.  On the other hand, my husband is helping me explore sexualizing the ur-boob, touching it during shared intimacy as well as more casually in cuddling.  I find this has done much good in assisting my subconscious to accept my new form.

These days I have a much more ambiguous relationship with the remaining breast than the mostly-missing one.  How do you continue to love and accept a body part that you’re planning to remove before it tries to kill you?  You can’t reject it outright while it’s still a part of you, or you’ll get alignment weirdnesses and messed up patterns of muscle tension and possible other health issues.  However, you also can’t fully trust it, especially with the genetic component of cancer mutation present.  Conditional acceptance of a body part is a strange thing to attempt healthily, for someone used to more comfort with my own body than that.  It varies from day to day how well I do on that front.

I feel healthier than I have in years, which I’m told is fairly normal after a life-threatening health crisis — not the least of which is now I have more visceral motivation than most to get and stay healthier.  That has certainly contributed to more emotional equilibrium as well as easier bounce-back from heightened emotional states.  It also makes it practically much easier to make myself exercise and stay active even when I’m-tired-and-don’-wanna.

I have to assume all of these factors are contributing to my current healthy and vibrant libido as well as my available physical energy for daily activities which is still improving weekly.  I’m well aware my experiences in this area are nothing like most people with breast cancer.  It’s obvious from the available e-literature on the subject that most people are expected to be sexless and hate themselves post-mastectomy, or only feel better if they get reconstructive surgery.  I don’t expect everyone to follow my lead, but I am here to tell you that those expectations aren’t inevitable.

More questions or thoughts? That was fun to think about!

5 Responses to “Cancer Chronicles — answers re: sexuality”

  1. Cheryl McLayon 02 Sep 2010 at 8:25 pm

    Interesting thoughts. Most of my body-altering surgery was when I was a kid or teen, but I have noticed some of the same things you have mentioned. Not having two legs makes me noticeable in some ways. It means some people won’t look me in the eyes. I have even noticed a difference between the way people will interact with me when I walk with an artificial leg, with crutches, or sitting in a wheelchair. I enjoy, to some degree, pushing their comfort zone a bit. If I’m walking on crutches, and I feel sexy and beautiful, I will walk more seductively, wear clothing that brings attention to something besides my lack of leg, and generally not care if anyone else cares. If I am in a wheelchair, most likely in an airport or some other depersonalizing place, I make an effort to talk with people or make eye contact (the fun part is you can interact with kids at a different level!!) .

    When I was young, I hid my leg, even to the point of trying to be invisible while moving from the beach towel to the public pool. Now, I don’t worry nearly as much about what “they” think. I don’t necessarily wish to purposefully make people uncomfortable by showing off my scars, but I don’t hide them as much either. For the most part, as I have gotten older, I wear what I want- more color, more sexy- and as you said, those whose opinions about which I care will see who I am, instead of how many legs I have.

    I was interested to see your comments about your husband touching your “ur-boob”. I have had very few lovers who felt comfortable about touching my “stump”, but my current significant other has never touched me any differently there than any other part of my body (I have given him my body and he accepts all of it). I was surprised once when I was having a professional massage, and another time when having acupuncture, to find individuals who treated my “little leg” in the same way as they did my “normal” leg. At the time, after the treatment, I even asked the acupuncturist why and she said the chi was the same, whether the entire flesh was there or not! Cool!!

    So, there will always be people who see the absence of my leg, or your breast, or whatever else that people perceive as something missing or lacking in us. And then, there will be the people who love all of who we are, just as we are, and will count our scars as part of the process not as a flaw. And we will love them, with their scars, as well.

  2. Maryon 03 Sep 2010 at 1:07 pm

    Reesa, any literature that establishes the expectation or denotes heavy possibility of anyone post-mastectomy feeling sexless and hating themselves because of the major body change should be burned or otherwise destroyed. Because of the ridiculous obsession in our culture of beauty or primary beauty being in the body, we who very much know otherwise should stand up and shout from the rooftops that beauty is in the mind and personality of each human being. We should protect anyone who might stand a chance of thinking otherwise, especially those who are going to go through or have gone through a body-altering experience. We should teach what we know in this all-important aspect of understanding that sexuality is in the mind, not in the body. Anyone whose partner would not automatically caress a changed or missing area of one’s body should not be allowed to be our partner. Anyone who does not view those of us who have changed by surgery and disease (both for me) as being the same beautiful, sexual beings that we’ve always been does not deserve to share our life space. Life is about love, caring, and respect above all else.

  3. Maryon 03 Sep 2010 at 1:18 pm

    To Cheryl: You sound like a very wise and courageous woman. Bravo! People stare and comment when I’m hobbling on my cane (less and less able to do so now days) and also when I’m piloting my power wheelchair. When I am interacting with a clerk in a store, and my husband is with me, and the clerk directs answers to my questions to my husband (”does she want?…………does she need?………..is she interested in?……………etc.) instead of to me — as if something is wrong with my mind because I’m in a wheelchair — I speak right up and correct them in their assumptions thereby insisting that they treat me properly. One thing that you mentioned has been a delight for me. I love children! They are so curious about my cane and my wheelchair. They stare, they point, they watch my movements, they often follow me especially when I’m in the chair and they come right out with their questions (usually starting with “what happened to you?”). Sometimes when there are a group of them, and I am moving slowly or stopped, they will encircle me and when they do, it feels like a party. There are good parts to everything in life.

  4. Cheryl McLayon 03 Sep 2010 at 3:43 pm

    Mary- I work with children all day (I’m a pediatrician) and I am always amazed at how easily they accept me on one or two legs. Yes, they will ask, but they will also accept the answer that this is the way I am and it’s okay. I’m not exactly sure at what age kids learn to not accept (disability/difference, color difference, idea difference), but it’s a harsh lesson for them. Before that age, they are frequently even unaware that a difference exists. My own niece was 4 years old, having known me her entire life, when she suddenly noticed that I only had one leg!! She asked all the questions and we talked about it and that was that, but I was surprised that it had not occurred to her earlier.

    And, yes, there is joy and wonder everywhere, when one is looking for it!

  5. Reesaon 04 Sep 2010 at 11:15 am

    @Cheryl and Mary — Thanks for participating in comments on this post! I find many people are pretty uncomfortable about sexuality issues and cancer (or chronic health, or the elderly, or the disabled, etc) so it was nice to see people commenting!