Intimacy After Mastectomy
I hear from women all too often who struggle with body image, low self-esteem, and self-doubt, even in their marriage relationships. That’s not what God wants for you or for your marriage. When you look at yourself in the mirror, I want you to see yourself the way God sees you and the way your husband sees you. I am going to share my story with you, and maybe you can learn from my journey through mastectomy and from my worries about intimacy with my husband post-mastectomy.
One of the first things I fell in love with about my husband was his eyes. He has beautiful blue eyes, and in them I saw a peace and strength I couldn’t resist. I had no way of knowing then how important the look in his eyes would be to me 25 years into our marriage.
When I was first told that I was going to need a double mastectomy, I was initially shocked and scared about the surgery itself, and then I became scared about what the resulting scars would look like–what I would look like. I scoured the web for any information I could find on the subject. My family physician told me that compared to other surgeries, it wasn’t too bad. He said surgeries that go into a body cavity, like heart surgery or hip surgery, are much more invasive and much more difficult to recover from physically.
He also acknowledged that the emotional aspect could be significant. I searched all the Christian sites I could think of for information about how mastectomy might affect my married life, and I found nothing. I only had a week to decide whether to go for reconstruction, which would require more surgeries — moving muscles and fat from other parts of my body after my mastectomy — or whether to opt for wearing prosthetics after my surgery. It was all so overwhelming!
In the middle of all this confusion, my husband said an amazing thing to me. He said, “You’re my wife. I love you, and that’s never going to change. I didn’t marry you for your breasts.”
He had actually said this to me immediately after the doctor told me I was going to need a mastectomy, but in the shock of the moment, it hadn’t sunk in like it should have. Now it did. I let it all go — all the worries, all the stresses. I just trusted my husband to mean what he said, and I remembered that my breasts didn’t define who I was as a woman. I’m so much more than that. I am a daughter of God! I’m a wife. I’m a mom, a friend, a sister, and many other things. No surgery can remove those things. I decided to forgo reconstructive surgeries and go for the simpler process of wearing prosthetics after healing. I headed into surgery feeling pretty positive.
Just after my surgery, I had five or six drains — each the size and shape of a grenade — taped across my chest that would require almost constant draining, measuring, and care when I left the hospital and for weeks after that. My insurance would pay for a nurse to come to our house to do some of this, but my husband wanted to take care of the drains for me. I appreciated the thought behind his offer, but I was unsure about whether or not I was comfortable with him doing it because of the “ick” factor. It seemed very un-sexy and very unattractive. Not only is it hard for me to accept help from anyone, but I was unsure about having my husband actually looking at my wounds, bandages, scars, etc. But he wanted to do it for me, and he talked me into it. A nurse was going to have to teach him how to do this, if he was going to learn how to take care of me. He was going to see the results of my mastectomy before I did. I hadn’t anticipated that happening, and I was dreading the unveiling! The nurse came in to show him the procedure, and I felt quite helpless in the middle of their conversation. I didn’t even hear any of it. All I could focus on was my husband’s eyes.
I was locked on his eyes, watching for his reaction. All that was hanging in the balance was my self-esteem, how I knew he felt about me — everything! Would he be repulsed? Would he gag and run out? The nurse started her explanation, and she said, “Now, remember not to pull on this, or it will hurt her. …” (Okay, I heard that!) I watched his eyes the whole time, and he never flinched. He never looked away! He was just focused on the task at hand and how to take care of me. He was fine with the new me.
Now, how would I be with the new me? I’m not going to lie to you and say it was easy to go home from the hospital after surgery, look in the mirror, and say, “Oh, that’s not so bad!” It was a big change to my body. In fact, it probably took me a week to get up the nerve to actually look at myself. I was afraid to look.
Once it all healed up, though, it was time to get over myself. I looked in the mirror and thought, “I look like a skinny preadolescent boy!” And I did, sort of. Then I kept reminding myself what my husband said to me. I’m his wife, he loves me, and that’s never going to change! That helped so much. But I had to be okay with how I looked. God tells us, “Do not let your adorning be external—the braiding of hair and the putting on of gold jewelry, or the clothing you wear—but let your adorning be the hidden person of the heart with the imperishable beauty of a gentle and quiet spirit, which in God’s sight is very precious” (1 Peter 3:3–4). I have physically never been a rocking beauty. And that’s okay. I diet, exercise, and take care of what I have. But beauty, according to God, is who we are to Him. The real me was still there.
After a few weeks, my surgeon said that it would be okay for us to resume our sexual relationship. I was still concerned about how it would go with my husband, if he would be okay with me as I am, post-mastectomy, and if I would be okay with intimacy.
But my concerns were wasted time. I should have trusted my husband more, and I should have rested in God’s Word: “‘Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble’” (Matthew 6:34). I had worried that my husband would not really be comfortable hugging me. I made a lame joke that when he hugged me, there was “nothing between us,” meaning that my chest no longer was “between us” and was making us stand slightly apart when we hugged. I couldn’t help but think of the Proverb that says to men, “Let your fountain be blessed, and rejoice in the wife of your youth, … Let her breasts fill you at all times with delight; be intoxicated always in her love” (Proverbs 5:18–19). Clearly, my breasts couldn’t satisfy him. Since he doesn’t look at pornography, he would never see a woman’s breasts again! Open communication was needed, and it was the lifeline of our intimate relationship, the same as it is for every marriage. After we resumed intimacy, I simply asked him if he could still be happy with me, with my new body, and thankfully, he was. The insecurities were all mine, not his.
Still, to be completely honest, I wear tank tops, short nighties, lacy camisoles, or something on top — not for my husband’s sake, but for mine. I don’t want you to think more highly of me than you should. I am not overly fond of the scars I have. I was given a booklet before my surgery, and it contained some post-operative pictures of women; however, I don’t know if the pictures were air-brushed or what. I didn’t come out looking like any of the ladies in those pictures! But because it was a life-saving surgery, I probably shouldn’t ask any questions, right? Anyone with insecurities about body image can do something similar. Talk to your husband about how you feel. If you are shy, find a way still to be intimate with your husband and work with your shyness. Let your husband know how you feel so that he can be sensitive to your feelings as you work through them. Again, communication is the lifeline of any intimate relationship.
For all of you who struggle with body image issues, if you think you are overweight, too thin, too this, or too that, try to remember that your husband married you because he loves you. You are the one who is beautiful to him. He needs you to give yourself to him. Give yourself grace. The flaws, as you perceive them, are probably minuscule in comparison to what you’re missing if you allow them to take away from having an amazing, fulfilling sexual relationship with your man. Discuss your insecurities with him. Remember that outward beauty is a fleeting thing, and that real beauty is your inner self, a gentle and quiet spirit. And for me, I just keep reminding myself that I’m his wife, he loves me, and that’s never going to change. And I still love that peace and strength I first loved in his eyes!
My tip for you today is this: Send an email to your husband today — yes, today — and say, “Hey, babe, how about tonight we put some wear and tear on our marriage license?” And then be sure and follow through with it because as Proverbs 13:12 says, “Hope deferred makes the heart sick, but a desire fulfilled is a tree of life.”
Blessings to you, and don’t forget to schedule your mammogram on a regular basis!