“You have breast cancer." When a woman first hears these four words, her first thought is usually, “will I be strong enough to fight this disease?” Once she learns that she will survive, thoughts about how she will confront drastic physical changes resulting from mastectomy and chemo are soon to follow. One way to help her cope is by having you—her partner—say and do the right things. So, what are they?
- Take a look. If your wife is undergoing mastectomy surgery without reconstruction, privately ask the surgeon if you can look at photographs of what her incision will look like. By knowing what to expect, you’ll be less likely to make a face after viewing her scars for the first time. In turn, you can avoid her misinterpreting this expression as fearful, when the fact is that you’ve simply never seen a mastectomy incision before.
- Talk about a transformation. My husband convinced me to not view my mastectomy surgery as an amputation of a critical body part. Instead, he encouraged me to look at it as “transformation surgery.” Remind your partner that the surgeon’s mission is to transform her from a victim into a breast cancer survivor. She is exchanging her breast for another chance at life—and isn’t that a truly fair trade?
- Two hearts. When you hug her, remind her that your hearts are touching in a completely new way.
- More than skin deep. Remind her you didn’t marry her for her breasts.
- Heighten her senses. If she is undergoing bilateral mastectomies, surprise her by taking her away for a romantic weekend, about three to four weeks after her surgery. My husband took me to the Pocono Mountains and said, “I’ve read that when you lose one of your senses, like sight or smell, your other senses become more intensified. Maybe the same thing happens to your erotic zones. It’s my mission to prove this hypothesis in the next 48 hours!”
- A work of art. Patients undergoing reconstructive surgery immediately after or at the same time as their mastectomy need to be reminded that their reconstruction is a “work in progress,” like a famous painting being created on a canvas. It takes time to rebuild a breast that will look and feel the way she wants it to again. It will never be quite like the original, but the rebuilt ones don’t contain breast tissue—which means she will have healthy breasts once again.
Lillie Shockney, RN, BS, MAS, is the administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Avon Foundation Breast Center. Ms. Shockney, a two-time breast cancer survivor, speaks to audiences across the country and has written books about breast cancer.