With so many advancements in surgery and treatment today, here’s the cool new reality: Breast cancer doesn’t have to mean big changes to a woman’s body:
• Instead of a mastectomy (breast removal), breast cancer surgeons may be able to do a lumpectomy, where they just remove the lump, combined with a breast lift or tissue rearrangement.
• Better chemotherapy can help shrink tumors before surgery, too, boosting a patient’s chance for a lumpectomy.
• Surgeons can be careful about placing incisions where they are somewhat hidden by natural folds of skin.
• Nipple-sparing mastectomies with direct implants also can keep a woman’s body looking more as it did before cancer.
But—the truth is, there are still changes. And for many women, the impact to their body image can be tough to take.
How Different Will My Breasts Be?
Dr. Alicia Vinyard, a breast cancer surgeon at the Georgia Cancer Center at Augusta University Health, makes a point of talking to women about the body changes that usually happen with breast cancer—before, during and after treatment.
For example, unless a woman absolutely has to, Vinyard discourages total mastectomies. “There is a myth out there that if you have breast cancer, you should get both breasts removed,” she said. “That’s not true, and I do explain that for your body image, it can be very drastic to lose your breasts. Even though breast reconstruction is great, women should be prepared for the fact that their new breasts are not going to be identical to their original breasts in terms of the way they look and feel.”
Any woman after breast cancer surgery may feel less comfortable walking around unclothed. She could start undressing in the bathroom or keep the lights off so that her significant other can’t see her. She may lose confidence and just not feel as attractive as she once did. “It’s very important that their significant other is supportive,” said Vinyard. “And I’ve had many significant others say, ‘She’s beautiful with or without breasts and I will always love her.’”
But it’s the woman who has to be happy with how she looks. Which is why Vinyard tells every woman in her care—especially older women who might say, “I’m too old to worry about what my breasts look like,”—“Age is irrelevant. We want you to be comfortable in your own body, and we will do whatever is needed to make that happen.”
In fact, for any woman who has had breast cancer surgery—whether it was a mastectomy or lumpectomy—and who would like reconstruction and/or revision, it is a federally mandated law that insurance covers this reconstruction.
In those cases where women have to delay reconstruction following a mastectomy or those who choose not to have reconstruction, the Georgia Cancer Center also offers an Image Boutique right in the lobby that sells special inserts and clothing to help give women symmetry and help them feel more confident in their clothes.
Will I Lose My Hair?
Despite improvements in treatment, ultimately, chemotherapy for breast cancer continues to result in hair loss. This includes not only hair on the head, but also eyebrows, eyelashes and all over the body.
“Actually, more so than losing their breasts, sometimes losing their hair is the most difficult part,” said Vinyard. “It’s emotionally impactful because it’s such a drastic change that you see and that everyone sees each time they look at your face.”
With many celebrities raising awareness for breast cancer—and putting their smooth heads out there on social media and in public—losing hair does have less of a taboo. But like scarring, hair loss still reminds you, “I have cancer.” A great choice to help are wigs and scarves—including at the Georgia Cancer Center’s Image Boutique—that can give women a similar style to their own hair, or even a brand new look. Many nonprofits also donate wigs and other items for women with breast cancer.
In addition, says Vinyard, the Image Boutique can help with skin-related changes from radiation, including resources to assist with makeup tips when applying eyelashes or filling in eyebrows.
What If I Need to Talk to Someone?
At the Georgia Cancer Center, every woman with breast cancer is referred to the psycho-oncology team as soon as she is diagnosed. “Having cancer can cause significant anxiety or depression, and we want them to at least meet with our team once to address these issues,” says Vinyard. “They are encouraged to at least visit with them once, and if further help is needed, they can continue to see our specialists.”
Vinyard has also launched a breast cancer survivor social group that meets the fourth Monday of every month at 5:30 p.m. at the Georgia Cancer Center’s M. Bert Storey Research Building (across the street from the cancer clinic). The group is open to anyone impacted by breast cancer, from women who are newly diagnosed to women who are going through or have completed treatment to family and friends. “We discuss issues like the emotional and physical impact of cancer, the effects of medication or surgery—all very real and relatable issues,” said Vinyard. “And the best part is these women are now connecting with one another and offering their own advice and tips for how they battled the disease.”
Because we know this: breast cancer can have a big impact on women physically, emotionally, psychologically, sexually and more. “It’s a tough disease,” said Vinyard. “But hair loss is temporary and hair will grow back. And having a few scars is worth having your life. These scars represent how truly tough these patients are, and they should be proud of their ‘battle wounds’ since they show that they have won the war and are survivors.”