I’ve lost a breast, not my sexuality!

With all of the scars, dents, weight gain, and hot flashes, is it possible for a breast cancer survivor to ever feel sexy again? Four breast cancer survivors are here to tell you: Oh, baby yes she can!

Take Paula Holland De Long. At age 37, she lost her left breast to cancer. She also lost her marriage.

“After I recovered from the surgery and from chemo, I was not the same person I used to be,” she says. “I was no longer driven by work and by money. My husband would look at me and ask, ‘Who are you and what have you done with Paula?’ One day I sat down to tell him that I wanted to quit my job. Instead I said that I didn’t think we should be together anymore.”

The divorce was amicable. Then Paula found herself dating again.

“At first I was really hesitant. I didn’t even want to tell people I’d had breast cancer until they got to know me better. Eventually, I learned to just say, ‘Hey, I’ve had breast cancer and if you have problems with scars, you probably will not want to go out with me.’”

Eventually Paula met Charles. When she told him her pat line about the scars, he took her hand, put it next to his heart, and said, “I don’t care. It doesn’t matter. You are beautiful to me.” They eventually married.

Like Paula, Stefanie LaRue worried what men would think of her disfigured right breast. After dating a few men, she eventually found herself in the shower with one. She’d never shown her breast to anyone in daylight before.

She said, “I don’t really have a breast on this side.”

He looked down and said, “Look at me. I only have one testicle! We’re a perfect pair.” It had been removed when he was 3 because it had never descended.

“I was so relieved,” LaRue says. “And now that I’ve gotten past that, I’m so much more confident.”

Veronica Gliatti had a similar experience. Before her treatment, she equated her sexuality with how she looked. After treatment, when chemo thrust her into early menopause and caused her to gain weight, she at first felt less attractive, despite the fact that her husband continually told her that she still was.

Eventually, however, she realized that, if the situation were reversed, she would not think of her husband as less attractive or desirable. She learned to feel sexy based on how she felt about herself and her partner.

“I feel more confident about myself than I did before because I’ve overcome a great battle,” she says. “I also feel more at ease with my husband than I did before because we’ve walked this journey together. I want to share all of myself with him. I do not want to take what time I have left for granted. There may be no tomorrow to express myself sexually. Why not express it today?”

Use this advice—from the breast cancer survivors who have been there and so done that—to get your groove back after treatment:

  • Take your time. It’s normal and natural to be embarrassed and to worry about what others will think. Tread slowly.
  • Don’t underestimate the power of acceptance. Most people are more accepting and more forgiving than most of us expect. “Don’t assume just because he is a male that he cannot understand,” says Gliatti.
  • Be sexy and feel sexy, says Gail Baker, survivor and author of Cancer is a Bitch. “My breasts had always been one of my best assets. The first time I saw my breasts after surgery, I burst into tears. It wasn’t until a few months later, when I ran a half marathon in New York with two girlfriends that I came to a place of acceptance. I told them that the scars made me feel less sexy. They begged me to show them. I inched my top down and one said, ‘scars are hot!’ It made me feel so much better. Flaws are hot. I can say that with great confidence now!”
  • Try something new, in any area of your life. “Confidence is the sexiest quality someone can display. It’s a magnet that attracts others to you, but you have to feel it so the other person will feel it, too,” says LaRue.
  • Have sex. Make yourself. Just do it. Remind yourself that you are still beautiful and still a woman. “Nobody can take away your vital passionate essence. It’s still there,” says Baker.
  • Evolve. “Do not approach sex the same way you did before. You are a new person now,” says Gliatti. “You are a new and better you.”

Are you struggling with physical and/or emotional intimacy and sexuality issues due to cancer? Breast cancer survivor and life coach Paula Holland De Long’s “Intimacy, Passion & Cancer” guided exploration group course might help you regain your confidence. This six-week telecourse begins on Tuesday January 14th and will meet weekly through February 17, 2009 from 1:00 – 2:30 pm EST. Cost $375. Contact Paula to register at 954-565-6894 or visit www.CoachForLivingOnline.com.

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Rediscover Intimacy
A workshop for survivors

Stay connected during treatment
Free websites for survivors

Cancer is a Bitch
Where to Get Baker’s Memoir

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Lessons learned… thanks to breast cancer

The biggest lesson that I learned from breast cancer is probably the simplest one out there.
Stop and smell the flowers.

I can hear many of you now… “That’s it…that’s your lesson?” Yes, that is it.

Sure, I have some “try this for that side effect” wisdom and some “yes, that happened with my children” experiences, but when I sum up my whole cancer experience, the hardest learned lesson was the most basic.

I am and have always been a doer – doing, doing, doing and never really just being. Our house growing up was a constant chorus of “idle hands… idle minds…” I can do like the best of them, but it is the being that I was never taught… until cancer showed me how.

My tumor was growing for 7 to 9 years before it was detected, and while it was growing into a life-threatening problem, I was busy trying to cram 30+ hours into a 24 hour day. If there was not time to exercise, I did not. If there was not time to eat properly, I did not. If I was tired and I wanted to go to bed but there were still more things do, I did them. If my body was achy and I wanted to take a bath and soak (soak – what does that word mean???), I pushed on and did not take the bath. If I saw a pretty flower and I wanted to stop a minute to admire it and to smell it, there was no time. I was moving too fast, and these pleasures of being just did not fit in my schedule.

Getting a cancer diagnosis stopped time in its tracks, and then its partner in crime – chemotherapy – slowed my pace to a crawl.

My priorities went from doing everything to doing the very basics. I had to eat, I had to rest, I had to take a bath and soak, and eventually I had to exercise. All of these things were not optional anymore. They were not a matter of fitting them in if I had time but of necessity. I had to do them to get healthy, to stay healthy and to stay alive.

When I started to get some energy back and could start to take walks, I moved at such a slow pace that I was finally able to notice things that were a blur before. Stopping to rest after a few small steps gave me time to notice my surroundings — the air, the sunshine, the flowers. I could finally appreciate the individual beauty of each one because I was moving at a snail’s pace.

As I try to find my new normal after cancer, it is easy to forget this valuable lesson. I’m 29 months out from my diagnosis and finally feeling healthy again, and every day I have to fight the urge to make up for lost time. I want to fit as much in as possible in case I have a reoccurrence, and it’s easy to get busy doing again instead of just being. But I have learned the hard way that I must not go back to my old patterns. I must listen to my body. I must change my life so I can live my life.

I recently read a passage from the book Circle of Stones… Woman’s Journey to Herself by Judith Duerk that I carry with me now…

“If a woman is caught in overextended lifestyle and achievement-oriented values, depression or illness may offer the only opportunity to allow her to be with herself. As she ignores her own needs for quiet and self-nurture, the voice of the deeper Self may call through depression. If a woman cannot let herself hear her own needs, but continues to adhere fearfully to a lifestyle that denies her inner growth and deepening, the voice of the Self may manifest in physical illness as the only possible way to force her to take time to be with herself. Illness forces one to care for oneself at the most elemental level, that of matter itself. In illness, no choice remains but to care for the body, to be caring to the cells. In illness, finally, comes permission to rest, permission to treat with love and kindness the base matter of one’s own body.”

Mary Beth Volpini is a breast cancer survivor, an artist and the mother of two children. You can read more from her at www.marybethvolpini.blogspot.com.

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Why Me Wisdom
Blogger Whymommy describes the pleasures and perils of raising two young boys while battling inflammatory breast cancer.

Save the Ta-tas
Make funding a cure fun and fashionable with sassy t-shirts, skirts and sweat suits designed by Julia Fiske. Save the Ta-tas has used its two greatest assets to donate almost $100,000 to the fight against cancer.

Check Yourself!
The circle, the line, or the wedge? Health Central’s handy instructional video teaches you three ways to give your girls a thorough self-exam.

A Breast Cancer Lifeline
Understand symptoms, treatments, research and how to lower your risk. It could just save your life.

Cancer taught me how to live

Terminal illness has a way of awakening our greatest potential. When Cara was diagnosed with breast cancer the parts of life that had lay dormant began to bloom. She was reborn.

While studying to become a computer programming consultant Cara lost sight of everything else in her life–relationships, friendships, family–nothing mattered except getting that certification. “When you don’t lead a well balanced life, the parts that you ignore will come back to bite you, and that’s exactly what happened,” said Cara. “But I passed the exam. I was so excited—I was finally certified. I was going to have the career that I dreamed of.”

About a week later, Cara was home and having a lumpectomy and woke up in the recovery room to a crying surgeon telling her parents that the lump in her breast was malignant. “I went home and stayed there for the entire weekend and sobbed — just sobbed. I thought it was the end of the world.”

But when the doctors said, “We need you to have a biopsy,” Cara didn’t think about her recently passed exams, she thought, “I never took those tango lessons, I never read those books, I never did any of those things, and, I’m not going to have the opportunity to do that anymore–because I thought it was a death sentence.” She quickly learned that she had the ability within herself to turn the situation into something good if she would trust and be open to it.

“I had never known anyone before who’d had cancer, and I just thought that was the end of the world,” said Cara. “I decided I would make a list of all the things that I had never done, and during the recovery period between surgery and chemotherapies, I would do all those things.”

During her chemotherapy Cara went to live on her parent’s farm. She realized the impact your environment can have on every part of your life. It can inspire you, give you hope, and help you be more productive. But it can also fight you, become a source of stress, or take away your motivation.

“Because I had absorbed myself in my career, I had let my house go. I wasn’t decorating anymore. I didn’t even have a bedspread,” said Cara.

While recovering from chemo, Cara’s therapist gave her an assignment… to redecorate the bedroom. “I thought, ‘redecorate my bedroom?’ I don’t have time for that. But it was an experiment that changed my life.”

Cara discovered that “by going back and redoing that place—where I laid under the covers and sobbed for 72 hours, where there had been so much pain—by painting the walls, by redoing, taking down the wallpaper, I was healing the room. Somehow that healing of the room was healing me.”

This transformation got Cara thinking. She started a company called Spicy Spaces to share the joy of helping people see their environment with a fresh eye.

Among the many things on Cara’s list of things to do was catching up on all those books she had been meaning to read. Here are Cara’s 3 essential reads that helped make chemotherapy a bit easier:

1. Love, Medicine and Miracles by Bernie S. Siegel
2. Getting Well Again by O. Carl Simonton
3. Oswald Talked by Ray and Mary La Fontaine

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Cara’s Website

Think Pink!
The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website lends a helping hand to women coping with chemotherapy-induced side effects and shows you how to get involved.

Check Yourself
The circle, the line, or the wedge? Health Central’s handy instructional video teaches you three ways to give your girls a thorough self-exam.

When breast cancer becomes a family affair

Jean had been planning the trip of a lifetime for more than a year.

Ever since her husband had passed away, she and her three daughters had been daydreaming about their vacation in Hawaii. They wanted a chance to create new memories and to solidify their family bond. They planned for months, and in the midst of all the excitement, Jean was diagnosed with breast cancer.

“I was the first person in my family to have breast cancer, and it was devastating,” said Jean. “I found out from having a mammogram, and from there it was really fast. I had surgery and then I went through chemo for about 8 months.”

Not wanting to let her girls down, Jean decided to go ahead with the trip. She hadn’t even finished treatment yet.

“I never saw her get sick,” said Jean’s daughter Tina. “She would never tell me. I would say, ‘How are you feeling?’ and she’d say, ‘A little tired.'”

After completing her treatment and getting a clean bill of health, Jean felt like breast cancer was out of her life for good. But 5 years later, on the anniversary of her last treatment, her daughter Tina got the same fateful call.

“That was even worse for me,” Jean said. “When something happens to your kids, you’re going to blame yourself. That is just being a mother.”

Since both Jean and Tina knew exactly what breast cancer was like, since their family had felt so deeply its impact, Tina admits that she was afraid it might be genetic.

She put off testing for a while, afraid that if it was genetic she’d have to admit it wasn’t over. Her sister, who was concerned for all the women in their family, eventually convinced her to get it done.

“It took me awhile to get the results because they test something like 16,000 different points in your blood,” said Tina. “Finally my doctor called and she said it was all negative. There is an 85% chance that I will not have a reoccurrence and 75% chance that no other female in my family will get it. I didn’t think that I was that worried about it, but after she told me everything was negative I was really relieved. I could tell all the girls it isn’t going to be our fault.”

Getting a clean bill of health made Tina realize just how important it is to find a cure. She decided to take the positive outlook she depended on through her treatment and put it toward throwing a benefit to raise money for breast cancer research.

Using her sense of humor and enlisting the help of the women in her life, Tina set out to get donations and plan a silent auction.

“I was scared to death,” she said. “Basically, I learned how to beg!”

Friends and Families for a Cure has become an annual event, and Tina makes sure that the benefit celebrates all the survivors it benefits.

“We have a DVD that shows survivors pictures playing during the event, and we have a memory board shaped like a ribbon for people who didn’t make it through,” she said. “I can’t believe that there isn’t someone out there who hasn’t been touched by breast cancer. Either they know someone, or they’re related to somebody. I think if you put a name and a face with it, it makes it a lot more real for people.”

Gardening for a Cure

Linda’s mother was 86 years old when she was diagnosed with breast cancer. The doctors wanted to perform experimental radiation therapy, rather than go in and biopsy and try to take out anything. Because of her age, they were afraid she wouldn’t make it through the experimental surgery. Linda and her sisters told their mother she didn’t have to go through with it.

“Are you kidding?” her mother responded. “Even if it doesn’t do anything for me, I will do this for you, I will do this for your daughters and their daughters.”

After her mother died, Linda wanted to do something to honor her, something concrete. “I wanted to do something to help her, something concrete. Then she had an epiphany that truly changed her life.

Rather than become paralyzed, Linda was able to keep the memory of her mother alive and share her process of healing with others. Visit Personal Sanctuaries blog to find out more about taking a garden tour.

MORE TIPS & TOOLS

Garden All Over the World
Love gardens? This all-inclusive tour will take you from Ecuador’s tropical flora to China, where the blossoms grow.

Preserving the Beauty
The Garden Conservancy is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving America’s most beautiful historical gardens.

A Breast Cancer Lifeline
Understand symptoms, treatments, research and how to lower your risk. It could just save your life.

Think Pink!
The National Breast Cancer Awareness Month website lends a helping hand to women coping with chemotherapy-induced side effects and shows you how to get involved.

Why Me Wisdom
Blogger Whymommy describes the pleasures and perils of raising two young boys while battling inflammatory breast cancer.

Check Yourself!
The circle, the line, or the wedge? Health Central’s handy instructional video teaches you three ways to give your girls a thorough self-exam.

Save the Ta-tas
Make funding a cure fun and fashionable with sassy t-shirts, skirts and sweat suits designed by Julia Fiske. Save the Ta-tas has used its two greatest assets to donate almost $100,000 to the fight against cancer.

Taking the mystery out of mammograms

There are certain things in life, those little maintenances that we just don’t take seriously. Well, at least not until we have to… For example, dentists swear that flossing every day will prevent cavities and tooth decay… But, come on Dr. Rosenblat! It’s a wonder that I made this appointment in the first place. Or maybe it’s talking on your cell phone in the car (It was only for a second) or jaywalking or sunscreen. And show me the woman who subjects herself to helmet-hair if she can avoid it! That’s what I thought.

We all know that it would be painfully easy to add these little maintenances into our routines, but sometimes it takes a root canal or an accident to remind us of the virtues of taking precautions. Fortunately for “Guiding Light” star Kim Zimmer, experiencing breast cancer through her role was enough to make her proactive about her health.

“I was a bad girl,” Kim said, “My sister is a survivor of breast cancer, and my grandmother lost both breasts to it. Having a history of the disease in your family should certainly be impetus enough for one to be more proactive with their own health. But fear of the unknown always held me back from going to the doctor.”She hadn’t had a mammogram in about seven years.

When Kim’s character on Guiding Light, Reva, began going to go through the experience of breast cancer, every thing changed. As the doctors looked her in the eye and told her, “This is your fault; It’s your fault that you have advanced stages of breast cancer because you were not proactive in your personal healthcare,” she could not help but feel the gravity of the mistake she was making in her own life.

Although she did not do a lot of research on breast cancer in order to accurately portray Reva’s surprise, Kim did cut her hair. In fact, she even wore a lot of bandannas and headgear off the set to see how people might treat her differently. “People didn’t approach me in my neighborhood,” Kim Said. “They approached other people and said, ‘Is Kim all right? We see that she’s playing this storyline. Is she OK, or is she really going through breast cancer?’” Although having people discuss her health behind her back was difficult, it did help Kim become more conscious of how she treats other women who might be going through breast cancer.

But it was quite another story on the set when the casting crew hired actual cancer survivors for the episode at the breast cancer clinic. “I became very guarded about what I said in the rehearsal hall,” said Kim. But soon enough, the women had her laughing and Kim’s perspective was transformed once again. “When we were out of the scene, we talked about real life things. We didn’t just talk about their struggles… These women were incredible. Their battles were all different; they were in different stages of recovery. Some of them were still facing more chemo.”

“I was so afraid before, but imagine how much scarier it is to be sick and not know it. My take now is that there’s nothing to be afraid of.”

So before you loose your teeth, your head, or your breasts, take a minute to be proactive and take responsibility for your health. It’s time.

MORE TIPS & TOOLS

Watch Kim on Guiding Light

Have you had your mamogram?
The American Cancer Society recommends that a woman obtain her first baseline mammogram between the ages of 35 to 40.

Imagine life without breast cancer
Join Susan G. KomenTo save lives and end breast cancer forever by empowering people, ensuring quality care for all and energizing science to find the cures.

How to perform a self exam
Women should be aware of how their breasts normally look and feel and report any new breast change to a health professional as soon as they are found.

Taking care of your “girls”

takingcareflyer.inddOn page 4 of Taking Care of Your “Girls,” there are 15 drawings of boobies. Not breasts, but boobies. Boobies as a young girl curious about her own development might draw them.

There are banana boobs, pointers, far apart boobs and no-gravity boobs, to name a few. The collection was put together by Isabel Friedman and her cousin Lena when their adolescence sparked a curiosity calmed only by investigation.

“On the beach and around town, Lena and I would observe the different kinds of breasts we saw, then come home and draw them,” Isabel said. “Most of my illustrations were realistic, others more imaginative, but in recording the ‘findings’ of our ‘study’ we came to one conclusion: every set of breasts is different and unique.”

Isabel’s mom, Marisa Weiss, is a doctor. Not only that, but she is a doctor who specializes in breast health and the founder of Breastcancer.org. She is armed with information and insight and raised her children to be open about everything. But despite her lengthy credits, she had no idea her daughter and her niece were keeping what they refer to as the Nipple Book.

“I knew at the time they were doing something private, but I respected their privacy,“ said Marisa. “When she showed it to me a few years later, I was shocked. I couldn’t believe she had so many issues and hadn’t shared them. It was such a personal matter to her.”

drweiss_185x165Isabel, like most developing girls, was insecure and embarrassed about the things that were happening to her body, which is why she didn’t go to her mom even though she wanted to know that everything was alright. When she finally fessed up about the Nipple Book, she inspired her mom to take her commitment to breast education to the next generation.

With the help of her daughter, Marisa went into 7 schools in Philadelphia and Atlanta and surveyed about 2500 girls to find out what they wanted to know and what their biggest concerns were.

“About 75% of girls have someone close to them who have been diagnosed with breast cancer,” said Marisa. “We also found that 30% of girls worried that they’d had breast cancer at some point… By the power of suggestion, the cancer story being told everywhere, girls just automatically think they have it.”

Marisa and Isabel also discovered that:

  • More than 20% of girls incorrectly think breast cancer is caused by tanning, drug use, stress, antiperspirant, wearing a bra or cell phone use.
  • Most girls prefer to get information from their doctor, but they don’t feel comfortable asking because they aren’t able to be unchaperoned during the chat or they don’t have rapport with one physician.
  • Most girls also want to talk about their body’s changes with their mothers… not their sisters or girl friends.
  • Few girls know how to keep their breasts healthy.

To complete their study, Marisa and Isabel surveyed 700 moms, and found that 90% of moms want to talk to their daughters, but only 40% actually had. Fear of being uninformed or fear of making their daughters feel awkward were the biggest barriers to the discussion.

“It’s so personal, private and embarrassing, but talking about things is a skill,” said Marisa. “We don’t really appreciate that we need teach our daughters how to talk about things that are uncomfortable and to practice it. Not only does it apply to breast health and breast cancer, but it applies to anything else about your life.”

Through their research, Isabel and Marisa discovered that there are certain ways girls prefer their mothers to bring up the subject of development. Humor is always good, saying something to the effect of, “I see you’re girls are growing… what are you feeding them?” They also suggest sharing personal experiences to build a connection and put girls at ease – “I see you’re going through some changes… I experienced a lot of difficulties when I was your age. Do you want to talk about it?”

With all the insights they discovered, the two decided to put together a manual for growing girls – a manual that stars Isabel’s famous Nipple Book – and called it Taking Care of Your “Girls.” Marisa, as Dr. Weiss, provides the medical peace of mind; Isabel, as a peer, provides the confidence of a girlfriend. The book bridges the gap between mothers and daughters when it comes to discussing breast health and offers tips about:

  • Teasing
    Don’t give an emotional reaction. Get out of the situation and protect yourself from further insult.
  • Bras
    Measure to find the right fit, and then try different styles to find something that keep you from feeling self conscious.
  • Dressing to fit your shape
    Distract attention from big breasts with vertical stripes and v-necks. Or to balance out growing hips with a small upper half, try bold patterns and fitted waists.
  • Adjusting size
    Add padding or push ups to even things out or to make you feel better about your pace of development.
  • Leading a healthy life
    The best defense against breast cancer is lifestyle. Exercise, don’t smoke, stick to a healthy body weight, maintain rituals and routines, and get plenty of rest.

The circumstance between Marisa and Isabel proves that raising healthy daughters isn’t just about passing along information. If you notice your daughter starting to feel betrayed by her body, be a better mom by acting like a girlfriend. By sharing your own experiences, she’ll likely feel more normal in hers.

For more info about the book (and to see more sketches from the Nipple Book), visit the Taking Care of Your Girls website.

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Self Health
Learn how to do self-exams and know what you’re looking for.

An Uplifting Interview
Check out Marisa and Isabel on Good Morning America!

Point, Counter Point, Talking Points
Get all the info you need to know about puberty from Cleveland Clinic’s guide to talking to your adolescent daughter.

Girls Go-To
Practical information about health that helps girls grow into women.

Teen Speak
At the Center for Young Women’s Health, girls can take quizzes, chat with other girls, and get guidance on an array of health issues.