PUBLISHED ON: 12 June 2018

Alex, Tricia and Sharon talk about how breast cancer affected their relationships in different ways.

Alex: I didn't feel attractive

Alex and her family

Alex's experience of the side effects of treatment left her feeling unattractive. She shares how trusting her husband got her through.

I was focused on getting rid of the cancer

I found a small lump in December 2016. I was seen by the GP straight away. After tests, I was told I had a grade three invasive ductal carcinoma.

Six months later I had a recurrence. This meant I had to have another lumpectomy, then a mastectomy as I was then told I had DCIS, as well as chemotherapy and radiotherapy, and now tamoxifen

I had to depend so much on my husband

I had a lot of side effects from my treatment. After the mastectomy I was in a lot of discomfort, and it was hard for me to look after myself.

When I was diagnosed my husband became my ears. He came to every appointment. He knew everything I was thinking. We were always on the same page for every decision.

Later he became my carer. He helped me with my drains after surgery, with washing and drying my hair, and caring for my wounds when they were healing. 

The last thing I wanted to do was be intimate

The side effects from treatment didn't make me feel attractive. Tamoxifen hasn't physically affected me, but I noticed emotional changes. I feel tired and it has made sex very uncomfortable.

I have implants following my reconstruction, but they feel unattached to my body. They don't feel like a part of me, and it's taking a while for my body to adjust and heal.

All this, alongside hair loss, meant that I just didn't feel pretty anymore.

We had to learn together

The biggest learning curve for my husband and I has been how to deal with my mood. When I started chemotherapy, it was very up and down. He had to understand that I wasn't just being 'grumpy'.

He has also had to accept that sex will be different, as the tamoxifen and chemotherapy side effects have made it incredibly difficult for us to be intimate.

Trust your partner

It's important to put trust in the fact that your partner still finds you attractive.

I sometimes think, 'My upper half is now so full of scars, my hair is so short โ€“ why would anyone want that?'

But my husband thinks I'm beautiful. Believing him when he says I'm attractive and allowing him to support me is what has got me through.

Tricia: How do I tell someone about my diagnosis?

Tricia

Tricia found it hard as a single parent to admit she needed support. She talks to us about how she coped, and starting to date after breast cancer.

I went into automatic

My mum died of cancer, and I have the altered BRCA1 gene, so I was having early mammograms. When I turned 49, they found a small lump that tested positive for cancer.

I wasn't surprised โ€“ as crazy as it seems, I expected it. From then on I went into automatic mode. I had to tell my daughter who was with her partner and her son, that was the hardest thing. She was 13 when my mum died, so I didn't know how she was going to take it.

It's difficult to handle on your own

I had six courses of chemotherapy and 20 of radiotherapy, and opted for a lumpectomy rather than a mastectomy.

I was unwell throughout, and at one point vomiting blood. I wasn't in a relationship and it was pretty difficult handling it on my own. I have the most amazing friends and family, but at the end of the day they all go home. I know it affects everybody in different ways, but during chemo I was awake for days.

I was put on extra steroids, and ended up gaining more than three stone, yet I couldn't eat because I felt so ill. I had to buy new clothes, and felt so huge and unfit. It was the lowest time of my life. I just wanted to hide.

I wasn't used to looking for support

Because I've been a single parent for so long and dealt with things by myself, I didn't even think about asking for help. It's very hard to admit that you're not coping.

I went to a Look Good Feel Better class, which was fantastic. They showed me how to put makeup on, how to readjust your wardrobe if your body shape has changed, and what to do with your hair. Breast Cancer Care also has makeup tutorials online.

Dating after breast cancer

I've had a couple of relationships since then. The first one was two years after treatment ended. It was hard to know how to talk about my diagnosis. When's the right time to tell them? How do you tell them?

I don't want sympathy, it's more like explaining a job โ€“ something that happened in my life.

But I have to tell them because I have a higher chance that it will come back, because of the altered BRCA1 gene. It's important because they might not want that responsibility.

It makes it even more important to be sure they're the right person for you.

You don't have to go through it alone

I probably would have been able to cope better if I had spoken about things. It's so important to open up, whether to a partner or friend. You don't have to go through it alone.

Sharon: We weren't prepared for the emotional strain

Sharon and her husband

Sharon tells us how breast cancer affected her relationship, and how breaking the taboo of talking about her emotions helped.

There was no time to stop and think

I was diagnosed in September 2013 with grade 3 DCIS breast cancer. After that, everything progressed quickly. I had a lumpectomy followed by chemotherapy and radiotherapy.

It felt like a double-edged sword. I wanted the treatment to be over with but there was also no time to stop and think about what was happening.

It was a lot to deal with as a couple

My relationship had been going through a lot of changes. My husband and I weren't long married. We were dealing with our new baby, my two teenagers and my husband's redundancy.

When treatment starts, you think it'll be fine. You think, 'We'll do this together, we'll fight the cancer and we'll come out stronger the other side.'

But we weren't prepared for the emotional strains that would come from my diagnosis. Our dynamic as a couple changed. As time went on, we went from being in a partnership to a patient and a carer.

I didn't know how my husband could find me attractive

I was also struggling with the physical effects of treatment on my body. I didn't recognise myself when I looked in the mirror anymore.

I used to break down and cry. I felt like I had lost myself. If I didn't find myself attractive, how could my husband find me attractive? It was a horrible feeling.

I rediscovered my own strength

Eventually it got so unbearable in my home that I moved out.

This broke the pattern of patient-carer that my husband and I had fallen into. I reclaimed my femininity. I felt strong. I knew that I could look after myself and not be reliant on someone else.

My husband never lost hope that we would get back together. When we reconciled, it was an equal partnership, like it should have been from the start.

Nobody told me my relationship could change. I found out about Breast Cancer Care too late after my treatment. I wish I had heard of the Someone Like Me service before. It would have been so helpful to have support from somebody who had been there too.

You're not alone

You can feel so isolated by your emotions. It's important to remember that others are facing the same issues and feelings as you are and that you're not alone.

When your problems feel so personal, the best thing you can do is be open with your feelings. Someone else out there probably feels exactly the same.

ยป Read more of Sharon's story 

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