Redefining your identity

Both a mastectomy and an ovariectomy challenge a woman’s identity. Undergoing these difficult surgeries often has a far greater emotional impact on a woman’s well-being, and her sexual well-being in particular. 

After a mastectomy, the emotional effects on a woman’s sex life and sexual well-being will often be far greater than the physical effects. However, when a woman undergoes an ovariectomy as well, the physical side effects coupled with the psychological impact of such surgery can take a great toll on a woman and her sexuality.

The physical side effects of an ovariectomy often include a lowered sexual desire, as well as difficulties with lubrication and orgasm. Our ovaries produce testosterone, oestrogen and progesterone, and these hormones play a key role in our sexual functioning. This surgery will also induce menopause in a woman, which may bring with it menopausal symptoms like hot flushes, mood swings and lowered libido. Consulting your physician about appropriate hormone replacement options can be effective in improving your sexual health.

Psychologically, the impact that a mastectomy and ovariectomy will have on a woman is often challenging due to the symbolism of these particular body parts. Our breasts and ovaries set us apart from men and are integral to our womanhood and femininity. They are parts of the female body which produce and nourish children. After undergoing these types of surgeries, a woman will need to adapt her perceptions of her body without her breasts and ovaries, and what this means to her as a woman. These parts of our body play a physical and emotional role in our daily lives as women, and therefore losing them means that we have to rethink our body image, as well as what defines us as women.

Communication is key

Sex is not simply about physical touch and intercourse. It is important to remember that our relationship with our partner – both intimately and emotionally – is not simply founded on our body parts and what they do, but rather what they mean to us and how this plays a role in our body image, emotional state and sexual well-being. Changing your perceptions of your femininity and body after a mastectomy and ovariectomy can seem daunting and scary.

However, a partner’s support and encouragement can make this process easier. Talk openly with your partner about how you are both feeling about your body following the surgery. When your partner knows how you feel, she/he is more likely to be able to support you and understand the process you are going through. Problems can arise in a relationship following such surgery if a couple does not address the changes and challenges facing them. Furthermore, a lot of women feel that their partner will find them unattractive without their breasts, although this is rarely the case. Communication that is sensitive, open and honest will enable the couple to move forward together and overcome any challenges that they are faced with.

If you feel less ‘sexy’, try small changes like wearing a luxurious silk or satin slip, or keeping the lights down very low. You could try using candles during sex instead of normal lighting to create an intimate ambience and make the experience more romantic, and to help you feel more comfortable with your body. If you feel you are not managing with the changes to your body and identity, seek professional help from a counsellor or therapist.

Surviving a mastectomy and an ovariectomy as a couple:

• Communicate your feelings, express how the changes in your body affects your relationship.

• Focus less on the physical aspects of sex and more on emotion and intimacy – this will help strengthen your bond and take the pressure off.

• Face your fears about your body, and explore what it means to be a woman, what the surgery means and how you will feel afterwards – exploring your identity will help you face the challenges ahead.

• Seek professional help regarding any physical or emotional concerns that you might have. The challenges faced during this time can seem less daunting with people supporting you – including your partner and a health care professional.

Written by Catriona Boffard

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