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What Couples Experience After a Mastectomy

When a woman is diagnosed with breast cancer, she and her partner go through a series of unique circumstances to adjust, particularly if the woman has to have a mastectomy. In part two of our series on losing a breast to cancer, KSMU Jennifer Moore reports.

Here on Jefferson Avenue, a few blocks from Park Central Square, a one-story brick building rests inconspicuously in the heart of Springfield’s business district. It’s home to the non-profit organization Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks. These walls have been privy to some pretty intimate conversations between breast cancer patients and their counselor, Pattie Behl. Many of those conversations, she says, are centered around the patients’ romantic relationships.“Breast cancer puts a big mental anguish on the relationship and some relationships do not survive it,” she says.Some of the women she encounters have had a mastectomy—that’s the surgical procedure of removing a breast. Behl says a lot of them are now single mothers—women who were still married when they were diagnosed with breast cancer. “The husband can’t deal with it, or they don’t have good intimacy issues anyway, or they’re just not communicating, or she’s just not feeling well. He doesn’t understand the way it is, and they just lose each other,” she says. Behl says when a woman loses a breast to cancer, she battles feelings of inadequacy as a woman. Since a breast is a sexual organ, she says, this feeling of inadequacy shows up in the bedroom, even if a couple has been together for decades. “It’s like trying to write with your hand, but it had no fingers. You wouldn’t know how to start. That’s how it is right after surgery. You want to feel assertive, and be satisfying, but yet you have no idea what to do with this body,” she says.She says the number one thing that drives couples apart after a mastectomy is that they don’t communicate their fears, embarrassments and desires with one another. Receiving a diagnosis of breast cancer is not the time to let shyness prevail, she stresses.“Before you have your surgery, you and your partner should talk. What are your realistic goals, and what are his realistic goals? And if they don’t meet, then you need to talk more, before you decide what you want to do,” she says.Behl is referring to a woman’s options after a mastectomy: whether to have reconstructive surgery or to wear a breast prosthesis. It’s important, she says, for couples to decide together on what steps to take.

“I was fitted for prosthesis six months after surgery,” says Lucy Billingsly, a breast cancer survivor from Highlandville. She had a radical mastectomy less than two years ago, and says she might not have reconstructive surgery, since there’s no muscle left to reinforce an implant. Although she and her husband have learned to communicate about how this makes both of them feel, she knows that not everyone is as fortunate.“I met one lady. She said after her mastectomy, she never let her husband see her body again,” she says.

Billingsly said she has relied heavily on her girlfriends, her faith in God, and her husband to get her through her diagnosis and treatment.

"Now, if my husband, Dean, had said, ‘Oh you have breast cancer? Oh, you’re gonna have a mastectomy? See ya, gotta go now,’ then it would have been much more devastating,” she says.“I don’t feel like she’s any less. If anything, she’s more,” says her husband, Dean.Dean Billingsly says when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, he was prepared to do whatever it took to get rid of the disease. It's still difficult for him to talk about the whole ordeal. He held her hand through her extensive treatment, which included multiple operations and chemotherapy sessions. Today, his wife wears a breast prosthesis, which fits into a specialty bra.“She’s just more beautiful than ever, inside out. I’m just glad she’s okay,” he says.Dean believes he and his wife are closer now than they ever were. Although he witnessed her going through the stages of denial, anger and sorrow, now he looks at her and sees a woman who is proud of her femininity and of her body. And that confidence, he says, is attractive.“I think she’s just accepted everything and moved on and been so strong with it, that anybody around her goes, ‘Yeah, that’s fine,’ and it’s just not an issue on whether a breast is there or not. I’ve been pretty amazed at Lucy’s inner strength. I’m just glad she’s okay,” he says, wiping away tears.

“The biggest thing getting through any kind of cancer and treatments and that kind of thing is your attitude. And you’ve just got to be strong and never give up,” Lucy says.Today, Lucy is cancer-free. From time to time, she'll glance down at the scar from her mastectomy. In reflecting on her operation, she realizes that she may have lost a battle, but she's won the war.For KSMU News, I'm Jennifer Moore.

PIANO MUSICANCHOR TAG: Hundreds of women are diagnosed with breast cancer in the city of Springfield each year. If this story has you thinking about performing a breast self-examination, you can learn more by clicking here.