Please note: Dr Louisa Hoey is currently unable to accept new referrals

28/01/2016 |

Pink Ribbon Day Post: The Impact of breast cancer & mastectomy on body image

By Sonia Miller


With Pink Ribbon Day upon us again

I thought it would be important to write about the huge impact of breast cancer on women’s emotional wellbeing. There are so many issues that come up for women diagnosed with breast cancer. Emotionally women can feel angry, fearful, and out of control. Some women develop depression or anxiety and others can experience traumatic symptoms like nightmares and intrusive thoughts. Then there are social issues: coping being a new mum, maintaining a sex life or perhaps establishing new relationships. And this is just touching the surface. In this post today, I thought that talking about the impact of breast cancer and mastectomy on body image and self-concept would be helpful.

I think that more and more the community is becoming aware that cancer isn’t only a medical issue but that it has a massive impact on a person’s entire self and it certainly changes the way people feel about themselves and their body. There are many reasons for this change in perception and one reason I think is that we have some amazing people in our community who have done incredible things in the face of their own cancer trauma.

Australian Story (Life Laid Bare 3/6/2013)

is one of my staple weekly programs and in June this year it did not fail to disappoint as it told the inspirational story of Lisa Poulos. Lisa was diagnosed with breast cancer, she had a bilateral mastectomy and then a reconstruction. When she was first diagnosed Lisa was shown photographs of other women who had had surgery and reconstruction; she was shocked and horrified. It left her feeling like she was going to be mutilated. According to her surgeon, Dr Paul Crea, the experience of looking at photos like these can be too confronting and it can tip women into a ‘terrible psychological situation’.

For Lisa, in the face of this very personal trauma, an idea was born. Lisa documented her own journey in photography: before, during and after surgery. She explained that she did this because she wanted to ‘give back’ to the community. To give hope to women going through such devastating surgery, that there is the possibility of having a positive body image.

The impact of breast cancer and mastectomy

on body image can be really distressing. Although we might not talk about it much as women, the breasts have significant meaning in terms of femininity, intimacy and nurturing. And for many women, it is not just the surgery that impacts body and self-image but also changes around things like vaginal dryness, sexual enjoyment and libido. Working through these changes and their meaning for women is important. For some women, they see these changes in the context of survival and they come to an acceptance. For other women, they can become very stuck on these changes and find it difficult to move through the associated grief.

In psychology, we have a term called Post Traumatic Growth. You have probably heard of Post Traumatic Trauma: after a trauma like cancer some people will develop anxiety symptoms. They will find that thoughts of cancer are extremely disturbing and intrude on day to day life. But a lesser known concept is Post Traumatic Growth. This is the idea that although you would not want to go through the experience of cancer again, and you wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy, the very experience changes you in a way that enriches your life and gives a new level of meaningfulness. It might be that it helps you clarify your values and what is important in your life. It might be that it helps you realise so many things that you are grateful for in your life.

Although in her interview she didn’t specifically mention this concept, I think this is perhaps the kind of experience that Lisa might have gone through. She says “How do I think my breasts look now that they’ve been done? I think that (Dr) David Caminar’s done an incredible job. Do I love them? Probably not. I loved my real boobs”.  But, she goes on to explain, the whole experience has shown her how lucky she is to have a support network, and that you can go through something like this and come out the other end able to get on with your life in a meaningful way.

Some ideas that might help you if you are struggling with your body image in the context of breast cancer:

Consider how you define yourself as a woman – besides your breasts what makes you unique as a woman?

Communicate with your partner about how you feel in terms of your body.

Find new ways of being sensual in intimacy and take things as slowly as you need.

Do things that make you feel good…whatever that might be from wearing make-up, listening to music, drinking tea in the sunshine, cooking, dancing. This stuff will be different for different people and might take some experimenting to see how it feels for you.

Connect with other women for inspiration – follow blogs, join a support group

About the Author

Dr Louisa Hoey is a health psychologist.  She is the Director of the Health Psychology Centre. Louisa specialises in the psychological aspects of food, the emotional relationships around food and the development of strategies to a happier more fuller life.

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