Breast Cancer and Your Body


Body Image Changes With Breast Cancer

In our culture, breasts are an important sign of femininity. It is very difficult to lose your breasts, or to feel that they’ve changed for the worse. For many women, breasts play an important role in their body image and in their sexuality, so mastectomy, scarring and nipple loss have a huge impact on their lives. And there can be other physical changes, such as hair loss, weight gain, edema, skin changes, implants and the general appearance in clothes that can all make a woman feel unattractive. Breast cancer may also cause vaginal changes, drying and narrowing of the vaginal canal, which could also have a negative effect on a patient’s demeanor. And if you don’t feel attractive or sexy, this can interfere with your desire for sex or ability to become aroused. When you worry too much about your body image, you may also become anxious that your loved-ones could abandon you.

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Breast Cancer and Weight Gain

Weight gain is a common problem that has many causes. Specifically affecting women on breast cancer treatment are chemotherapy, hormonal changes, and premature menopause. The average woman on chemotherapy gains 5 to 8 pounds—some as much as 25 pounds. Some patients on chemotherapy experience food cravings. Weight gain causes additional stress to women already dealing with other physical changes. As if that’s not enough, breast cancer is more likely to recur in survivors who are overweight.

Premature menopause and the hormonal changes that go with it seem to lead to a loss of lean body mass, but a gain in fat. Overall they slow down a woman’s metabolism. After a breast cancer diagnosis, women often decrease exercise. And when on treatment, with all its side-effects and time consuming hospital visits, it’s no wonder they don’t take it up any more.

So what can you do? First, pay attention to what you eat: Decrease fat and increase protein intake. Try to eat 5 smaller meals instead of 3 large meals per day. Exercise as much as you can: Even moderate activity can increase your chances of becoming a survivor. Simply engaging in moderate and low impact aerobic exercise, such as walking 30 minutes a day will be beneficial. Leave guilt behind: Your weight may be out of your control—there are things you can do, but you can’t force your weight back to before-cancer levels. We advise that you talk to your physician before radically changing your diet or exercise program.

Breast Cancer and Physical Changes Impacting Sex

After treatment, physical changes often mean that old methods of sexual interactions are no longer practical or pleasurable. A treated breast may be painful, sensitive or numb. A breast that has been reconstructed often has a dulled sensation or no sensation at all. Surgery can destroy nerves that permit nipple stimulation, and the nipple may be absent altogether.

Hormone changes and therapy-induced menopause can decrease your sexual desire and arousal—even “working” long and hard may not lead to sufficient swelling and moisture. Those changes also make intercourse painful, with vaginismus (painful vaginal muscle spasms), nerve pain and a dry vagina. This obviously makes it difficult to reach orgasm.

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