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  health > women > story page AIDSAlternative MedicineCancerDiet & FitnessHeartMenSeniorsWomen

Feeling sexy after losing a breast

October 21, 1999
Web posted at: 11:13 AM EDT (1513 GMT)

In this story:

Breast reconstruction helps women heal

Doctor's orders?

Sexy with a single breast


By Ann Marie Brauner

(WebMD) -- Breasts had never held much significance for Elaine Ratner, of Berkeley, California. She paid more attention to her hips and thighs. She wasn't particularly aware of the breasts of other women, either. All that changed, however, when at the age of 51, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

"I went from never noticing them at all to noticing nothing else," says Ratner. "They were everywhere I looked." When she was initially diagnosed, Ratner says her first thought was that she could die. Then she worried that she might lose her breast.

According to the National Cancer Institute, more than 180,000 American women are diagnosed with breast cancer each year, and most treatments, in addition to chemotherapy, radiation or both, will involve surgery in which some breast tissue is removed. Following surgery, many women -- 69,683 to be exact, according to the 1998 statistics from the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons (ASPRS) -- choose to reconstruct their breast.

Breast reconstruction helps women heal

"Losing a part of your body is hard," says Peggy Jenkins, who lives in southern Washington state. Jenkins, who is in her early 60s, lost a breast to cancer. "I never thought I would be so vain, but I felt freaky, like I wasn't a woman any longer."

Elaine Ratner, whose ordeal with breast cancer motivated her to write "The Feisty Woman's Breast Cancer Book," agrees that it's tough to cope with the cultural standard that a woman isn't whole without both breasts intact. "There is a belief in society that women are attractive because of certain features and when you lose that, what do you have left?"

Jenkins woke up after her surgery and experienced this sense of loss: She found a cavity where her breast had been only hours earlier. "I'm a 36 double D so the other side looked crazy, like an udder hanging down." Jenkins spoke to a friend who had undergone a reconstruction and was pleased with the results. She decided that she too would try the surgery. "I felt I wanted to be a woman again," she says. "Now, when I'm dressed, no one can tell which one is real. It was worth the pain to feel complete."

Doctor's orders?

"I think it makes a huge difference to a woman to wake up with a 'new' breast," says Dr. Juliana Hansen, assistant professor of plastic surgery at Oregon Health Sciences University. "Most doctors try to encourage either breast preservation or breast reconstruction," she says. "Women tend to heal more quickly psychologically."

And breast cancer survivors appear to be following their doctors advice in greater numbers each year: According to ASPRS, there was a 135 percent increase in the frequency of the procedure from 1992 to 1998. Hansen performs three or four breast reconstructions a month and says that her patients have been very satisfied with the outcome.

The most natural-looking results, Hansen explains, depend on the envelope of skin left after the mastectomy; the more tissue the surgeon has to work with, the better the outcome for the patient. Called a "skin-sparing" operation, this type of surgery is becoming more prevalent as a means to aid in breast reconstruction.

Sexy with a single breast

Not all women opt for reconstruction, however. "When I first saw the scar, I was surprised," says Ratner. "It wasn't bad at all; it was thin as a pencil line. The left side of my chest looked like a young boy's; the other side looked like a grown woman. I kind of liked it." Ratner chose not to undergo a reconstruction in part because she did not want an implant in her chest, but also because she came to feel that her breast was expendable, nonessential for living. She focused her attention instead on disproving the breast myth.

Ratner disagrees that women heal more quickly psychologically after a reconstruction. "I really didn't like being told I had to do it or else I wouldn't be a complete person," she says. "It was a battle I fought for many months and I've never regretted my decision." Ratner's husband doesn't either. As she says, "he told me he loved me for me, not a part of me."

Regardless of the choice to reconstruct or not, feeling sexy and feminine after breast cancer is a difficult task, she says. "It's the unknown, so it's scary. The first time my husband and I were together after the surgery, we were very nervous. But then we relaxed and had a great time. Afterward we said, 'Gee, what were we worried about?'"

Copyright 1999 webmed, Inc. All rights reserved.

Breast reconstruction

American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeons and Plastic Surgery Education Foundation: Breast Cancer Reconstruction
American Cancer Society: Breast Reconstruction
National Alliance of Breast Cancer Organizations
Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation
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