After Breast Cancer, Feelings of Undesirability - Mia Curtiss
True Love After Breast Cancer
Theresa Back-Huggett never imagined she'd be dealing with breast cancer at age 26. Now happily married, she talks about her struggles dating with breast cancer.
By Elizabeth Shimer Bowers
Medically Reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
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At 26, Theresa Back-Huggett of Vancouver, Wash., never expected to find a lump in her breast. She was in a long-term romance and enjoying all the fun of being young and in love. Back-Huggett said that year she faced three battles. First, she had to fight to get a proper diagnosis given her unusually young age. Next, she had to get through grueling breast cancer treatment, which included a mastectomy, breast reconstruction, and chemotherapy. In the midst of her treatment, she also struggled with a failing relationship.
“About six months before I was diagnosed with breast cancer, my boyfriend at the time and I started talking about getting more serious,” says Back-Huggett, now 32. “He stepped up at first and helped support me during my first surgery, but once I started chemotherapy, things changed.” Back-Huggett says trying to balance a relationship while being drained physically and emotionally from her breast cancer treatment was a difficult juggling act.
“We started fighting about petty things. Because I was unable to have intercourse, he started turning to the Internet for his needs, which was very hurtful to me. Then we had a big fight on the way to my chemotherapy treatment one day — he dropped me off, and then packed his things and left,” she says.
Though bruised by her failed romance and bald and tired from breast cancer treatment, Back-Huggett was soon ready to start dating again. “In the beginning, I was still very angry at my ex, and I dated for all the wrong reasons — to get revenge,” she recalls. “As my hair grew in, I began getting hit on by women, which was flattering, but not what I was looking for. I cried a lot about dating during that time, but luckily I had wonderful close-knit friends who helped get me through it and build up my self-esteem.”
Back-Huggett also started attending a lot of breast cancer survivor support groups and reaching out within the survivor community. “It was amazing to be able to connect with women who had gone through the same thing. I started traveling and really coming into my own. My hair was back, and I had breasts again,” she says.
Then she met the man who would later become her husband. “Because I feared being hurt, I laid everything out on the table right away. I told him about the failed relationship and breast cancer, and he was very honest with me about some of the things he had dealt with as well,” she says.
Back-Huggett married her husband in 2012 with her difficult behind her and with a newfound wisdom about what her relationship needs.
“I remember those nights of crying and feeling so desperate in the midst of breast cancer treatment in my late twenties, when I learned what I need in a partner. I know I need someone who will be there if I get sick again and lose my hair, and I found that in my husband,” says Back-Huggett. “Being left alone in your darkest hour makes you appreciate the type of person who will stick by you.”
The Challenges of Relationships and Breast Cancer
Back-Huggett was certainly not alone in wanting to date while healing after breast cancer. Sandi Kafenbaum, LCSW and counseling coordinator at Adelphi New York Statewide Breast Cancer Hotline and Support Program, counsels women dealing with similar struggles with regard to dating, sex, and breast cancer.
“Dating in general is hard enough — dating with breast cancer compounds that difficulty on so many levels, especially in a young woman,” she says. “In a relationship, a crisis like breast cancer can exaggerate both the good and the bad. If it is a strong relationship to begin with, it can bring out even more support and understanding. Or breast cancer can lead a couple to go their separate ways.”
Kafenbaum explains that women with breast cancer deal with both physical and emotional challenges when it comes to dating. “First, there’s the issue of sex and breast cancer. There is so much attention on breasts in our society, so breast cancer gets to the core of a woman’s sexuality,” she says. “Plus, chemotherapy decreases libido, and if a woman has her nipple removed, it will decrease sensation.” Emotionally, a woman who is dating will have to deal with the decision of if and when to tell a dating partner about her breast cancer diagnosis, as well as the risk that person will leave, she says.
To help dating women juggle breast cancer and romance, Kafenbaum offers the following advice:
Give yourself time.“Women should give themselves time to heal from breast cancer, physically and emotionally, before they start dating,” advises Kafenbaum. “It is hard to put yourself out there when you are already feeling fragile. Dating goes much better when women feel strong and positive.”
Do what makes you feel comfortable.“One patient of mine who used to go skinny dipping with her friends decided to continue to do so after her mastectomy. I have other patients who have trouble showing their new bodies to their husbands. Everyone is different, and both extremes are okay,” Kafenbaum notes.
Enjoy other forms of sensuality.“Even when a woman doesn’t want to mix sex and breast cancer, there are things she can do to feel more sensual with a dating partner, like bubble baths, candles, and pretty lace tank tops,” she says.
Take it slow.“When you go on a date, don’t always add the pressure of, ‘will this be the person I end up with?’ ” Kafenbaum advises. “Have fun and take dating one step at a time.”
Think positively.“Remember, having breast cancer does complicate things, but there are also plenty of relationships that fail without breast cancer,” Kafenbaum says. Keep in mind that there are many people, like Back-Huggett, who find true love after breast cancer.
Find support.“Fellow breast cancer survivors can offer enormous support,” Kafenbaum says. To find a support group, she advises going through the Young Survival Coalition, an organization for young women with breast cancer. You can also ask your health care provider about breast cancer support groups in your area or even form your own support group, she says.
In addition to the love and support Back-Huggett gets from her husband, she continues to find enormous support from fellow survivors, and she urges other young women with breast cancer to do the same. “Even if you find just one other woman survivor, you can pick up the phone and cry to and say, ‘this is what’s going on with me — what’s going on with you?’ Breast cancer can be lonely and scary, so it is important to connect with others who have gone through it themselves.
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