Good, Confident and Sexy: Becoming Whole Again

Breast cancer can impact sex, intimacy and body image whether you’re single or in a relationship. In anticipation of our Twitter Chat on Wednesday, June 24, AnaOno Intimates Owner Dana Donofree blogs about her experience regaining confidence and embracing her desirability after treatment.

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I often compare myself to a broken doll. Not the kind that was so beloved, it was carried everywhere, slowly fading and falling into disrepair over time as if it were aging gracefully. More like the kind that was once beautiful, but its owner decided to take construction paper scissors and hack its hair down to oddly shaped tufts, to accidentally (or on purpose) break off a limb or two, scar the midsection with a Sharpie and leave it half bent and mutilated in in the corner of her closet.

Because that’s what breast cancer did to me. It took a perfectly acceptable woman and turned her into a shadow of herself, and when it is all said and done, it made her feel broken, ruined and rejected.

When I was first diagnosed, what was about to happen to my outward appearance wasn’t even on my mind. I thought I had it all together, the strength, the attitude, the “let’s do this.”

See, I was never terribly attached to my breasts. I never even really thought about them all that much. I was 27. My boobs were small, but perky. They hadn’t done anything hero-worthy like nourish a child. Their biggest accomplishment was being able to exist without a bra. Their greatest time to shine was on weekend party nights when they could hang out in a super low-cut blouse and up my va va voom quotient.

So, when the time came to go our very separate ways, my friends threw a “Ta-Ta to Dana’s Ta-Tas” party and they had one last night out on the town in the lowest plunging neckline I could find.

I was pretty flippant and casual about parting with my two of my lady parts. Friends and family took bets on which of my surgeons, Dr. McDreamy and Dr. Hottie, was the better catch. I joked that they would be the last to ever cop a feel of my original breasts.

I thought I was going to be just fine afterward. That it wouldn’t faze me in the least.

But, I never could have prepared myself for what it felt like, both physically and mentally, when I woke from surgery. For something I felt I was completely comfortable with and ready for, losing them, my breasts, shook my world.

I took off the bandages, and saw this alien staring back at me in the mirror. I was mutilated. I was swollen. My scars were their own entity  purple and protruding like someone had chainsawed me up and stapled me back together.

It is not at all what I had imagined. Where was this “We are replacing your boobs with ones just like them so you can feel ‘normal’?” I hadn’t expected to look like a badly-repaired Lego. I expected to kinda come out looking more implanty-boob-job like. This body was the farthest cry from normal I could have ever imagined. Continue reading

Cancer and Sex

Don S. Dizon, MD, FACP, regularly blogs on ASCO Connection, where this post originally appeared. Learn more about sex and intimacy after a breast cancer diagnosis during our Twitter Chat, Tweets from the Sheets, on Wednesday, June 24.

dizon_don 2012As an oncologist who also runs a sexual health clinic for women treated (or under treatment), I am discovering that my perspective on both issues of cancer treatment (and survival) and life after cancer (and quality of life) is somewhat unique. I am conscious of how difficult it is to bring up cancer therapy and survivorship (let alone sexual health) within the same discussion, yet I have gained a heightened sensitivity of the importance of looking beyond treatment even while we are discussing what to do now. I have benefitted greatly from colleagues in the field of sexual health, such as Michael Krychman, at UC Irvine, and Anne Katz, in Canada, both of whom I have been privileged enough to count as colleagues, co-authors, and contemporaries.

I am even more fortunate that one of my friends here in Boston also shares my interest in women’s health. Sandy Falk is a gynecologist and sees cancer survivors for women’s health issues at the Dana Farber Cancer Institute. In our practices, we both see the adverse effects of therapy that patients have to cope with. However, far from the arthralgias of aromatase inhibitors and neuropathy of some of our chemotherapeutic agents (two symptoms which we as oncologists are comfortable discussing), sexual health is often compromised.

There are common complaints encountered by those of us who cover sexual health. They include:

  • “I’m done with treatment, but now I can’t have sex. It is too painful and my sexual desire is completely gone.”
  • “Why didn’t my oncologist warn me about this? Maybe if I had known my partner and I could have worked on this early on. But now, so much time has passed now and my partner and I have lost patience.”
  • “I’m not sure how to go on with my relationship.”

Those may be extreme examples, and I hope for most oncologists that they are. However, what I do know is that these perceptions do exist—inside and outside of medicine. When the paper on AI treatment was picked up by several sites, I had read some comments posted and was disheartened to see that some of the thoughts above were reflected: “A woman should be lucky to be alive,” one stated; another said, “You can’t have sex if you’re dead.”

I believe most oncologists do not discuss sexual health with their patients and as an oncologist, I understand why. Most clinicians reading this might think (perhaps unconsciously) that the patient is “lucky to be alive.” And of course, she is. And we also know that she probably wouldn’t have had the ability to hear detailed information about sexual health during the diagnosis and treatment planning process—there were much bigger priorities then. Continue reading

Reflecting on ASCO 2015

Living Beyond Breast Cancer’s Erin Rowley shares her experience attending this year’s annual meeting of the American Society of Clinical Oncology in Chicago, Illinois. Download the audio recording and presentation from our June 4 ASCO webinar to learn about updates from the 2015 meeting.

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The American Society of Clinical Oncology (ASCO) has existed since 1964, and has held an annual conference for almost as long. ASCO created the Journal of Clinical Oncology, a publication in which many important breast cancer studies appear, and cancer breakthroughs are often announced at ASCO’s annual meeting. For years, representatives from Living Beyond Breast Cancer have attended this conference in order to hear about the latest in breast cancer research, and to pass that information on to you, to help you navigate life after a breast cancer diagnosis.

As LBBC’s writer and content coordinator, I went to this year’s conference, which took place May 29 to June 2, in Chicago. It was my first time at the event and it was an exciting opportunity to join the more than 30,000 people from all over the world who were in attendance. Some, like me, were there as patient advocates, representing people with cancer. But the vast majority of people there were cancer doctors. They came to present their own research and to learn from their colleagues.

Over the course of 5 days, thousands of studies, hundreds of which related to breast cancer, were presented; and dozens of educational sessions, in which doctors discussed what recent findings mean for their day-to-day practices, were held.

Moving between sessions about surgery, different breast cancer types, quality of life and other topics required quick navigating of McCormick Place, the largest convention center in North America. I’m certain I walked a few miles as I zigzagged through the crowds! In situations where I couldn’t be in two equally-interesting sounding sessions at once, ASCO’s use of technology and social media were really helpful. Many sessions were filmed, and the Twitter hashtag #ASCO15 helped me see what aspects of the conference people were most excited about. Even though ASCO has been over for about a week, people are STILL using the hashtag to continue the conversation. (Check it out for yourself!) Continue reading

The Spirit of Pageantry

Natalie Gamble is back on our blog with a post about supporting her daughter while in treatment for breast cancer, pageants and being honored with the “Spirit of Pageantry” Award.

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Life doesn’t stop because of a breast cancer diagnosis – it goes on. How you decide to approach that life is up to you. Me personally, I never missed a step.

After deciding on a treatment plan and scheduling my surgery I was on my way to Virginia Beach with my daughter for the International Junior Miss. Some background information about this trip: My daughter Mikayla is my hero and one of the strongest, most driven individuals I know. I tease her all the time that I want to be just like her when I grow up. At the tender age of 9 she announced she wanted to be a microbiologist and will be attending U.C. Berkeley to earn her degree, and here is the kicker – she wants to pay for it herself!  Since those words left her mouth, Mikayla, now 14, has made it her mission to do just that. Besides maintaining a A/B average in school, she competes in natural pageants to earn scholarships, pageants like International Junior Miss.

As a pageant mom, I wear many hats: tailor, beautician, coach, travel agent and cheerleader to name a few. Needless to say, my cancer diagnosis was a huge hiccup in my role as her support system. Monetheless, I was determined to work around it.  On our way back from an exhausting week of competitions, I received a phone call from my daughter’s new pageant director Christina Sacha Grooms, who introduced herself to us and updated us about the rest of my daughter’s reign.  I informed her of my diagnosis and told her that no matter what I would get my daughter where she needed to be.

While I was fighting the good fight in treatment, my daughter was reigning as International Junior Miss’ Colorado Preteen 2014. And as promised she was at every event, photo shoot, and appearance as scheduled. Our pageant family was just as supportive as our immediate family and to this day, I thank God for these incredible people. Every time we saw each other it was a family reunion and it touched my heart to know they read and looked forward to my Facebook posts. Every day I tried to share my feelings and thoughts with my family and friends.  Continue reading

The Art of Sharing (or Not)

Amy Wu is a panelist for our Breast Cancer 360: Mapping the Future for Young Women With Breast Cancer, taking place Saturday, June 13 and offered through FREE Web stream. In this piece, Amy writes about sharing her breast cancer experience with family and friends and how she coped with their reactions.

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When bad things happen most folks either retreat or share. I am of the latter. I tend to share.

When life throws its lemons I pick up the phone and call my constellation of close friends and family. Bad hair day. Stressful work day. Bad commute. I will share on the phone, by text, or on Facebook.

And then something interesting happened. In the wake of being diagnosed with breast cancer in May 2013, I clammed up. I shared just enough of the bad news with immediate family out of necessity and then retreated. I just wanted to be left alone and even deactivated my Facebook account.

Beyond the initial shock I swiftly started to share again. I shared my story with the local newspaper. I shared with my friends. I shared my story on social media. I shared with colleagues. I shared with my 93-year-old grandmother who insisted on knowing what was going on. And I shared with my then fiancée. I didn’t just text or email. I picked up the phone and shared. I shared in person sometimes over coffee or an adult beverage. In retrospect I’m not certain as to why I shared so swiftly and vastly. I just know that I shared my story with almost everyone I encountered.

What I was not prepared for the reactions I received or didn’t receive. This is one of the unspoken challenges of being a young woman diagnosed with cancer. No one expects that the news would come from someone so well, young.

“No way, you’re so young, it doesn’t make sense,” a lot of friends would say. I’d shrug. Yeah, well. Oh well. Continue reading

Hair

Amy Reichbach shares an essay she wrote in Writing the Journey, a 6-part workshop series offered in-person or online for women affected by breast cancer. She dedicates the piece to her 2012-2013 Civil Procedure class at the University of Massachusetts School of Law (pictured below). 

UMass Civ Pro 2012-2013

I dyed it pink as day seventeen approached. I wondered if the falling out would be slow, snaking its way strand by strand down my shoulders, past my hips to the floor. Or sudden, clumps of dark blonde hair appearing in my hands during a shower, or when I casually reached up to idly twist some strands during a conversation. I couldn’t cut it short, even though so many said this would make it easier. But I had lost a breast already; this would be another piece of my femininity gone. And so with my four-year old daughter by my side I cut two pieces of the long hair I’d always had, tied them with ribbons – one for her, one for me. Then, with a friend’s help and some hair dye, we became pink.

Amy Reichbach (pictured in the middle).

Amy Reichbach (pictured in the middle).

And somehow, a few days later, after I stood in front of my class of first-year law students explaining that I would be starting chemo and losing my hair sometime after their final exam, and that I’d gone pink with my daughter to help ease her anxiety about my impending baldness, they all showed up pink too. These special people who had kept me working, who had motivated me to return as soon as possible after each surgery – their beards and hair and clothes were all pink. My attendance sheet went around that day and came back covered in pink stickers. Pink cookies had been baked and stacked on a plate at the front of the classroom.

I cried.

And then I taught. And they learned another sort of lesson – that it was okay to be vulnerable, that connection mattered, that every day we would come back to the same room and do what we did.

Amy Reichbach is a lawyer, educator, and divorced lesbian mom living in the Boston area. These pieces were written during her participation in LBBC’s online Writing the Journey program facilitated by Alysa Cummings.