Ask Joan: How to Reveal my Masectomy?

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A reader asks:

I am a divorced woman, 70, and I’d like to date and get sexual again. I had a total mastectomy after a second recurrence of breast cancer. Major complications from the surgery and infections left one side of my chest severely scarred and disfigured. I wear prostheses, so it’s not obvious when I’m dressed.

The only person who has seen my chest is my plastic surgeon. How will a potential mate react to it? A woman’s body image is so personal to her. I feel lost about how to talk to a man — a potential mate — about mine.

This kind of intimate conversation would only happen after I feel emotionally comfortable with this person and believe the relationship might have a future. If I had no fear of rejection, I’d start by explaining my experience dealing with breast cancer, how it progressed, and how frightening the process is. I’d explain my decision to have a total mastectomy and why my chest looks so scarred. This would be a difficult conversation. If I felt close to this person and a relationship was in the making, I hope it would go well. But honestly, I wonder if he would accept me the way I am.

I meet people by attending local events, public presentations, classes and through friends. I looked at the popular online dating apps but haven’t signed up. I prefer to get to know someone before we start dating. I have different priorities and see life differently after the things I have been through.

I am anxious to move forward in life, and I want to be prepared for dating and sex with someone new. How do I initiate a conversation of such a sensitive nature?

—   How to Reveal?

Joan responds:

I’m sorry for all you’ve endured physically and emotionally. I admire you for taking charge of starting to date again and being open to a possible sexual relationship. Let’s take this in three stages:

  1. How do you meet men who might be potential partners?
  2. When and how do you have that intimate conversation about your body, what it’s been through, how it looks, how you feel about it?
  3. What do you need to feel comfortable enough with a new person to move your relationship to sexual intimacy?

 Meeting and Screening

It’s great that you’re active in social settings. Put out the word to your friends that you’re interested in meeting new men. Consider also a cancer support group, where you’ll meet people with their own issues and challenges. Your oncologist can suggest a local group. They also exist online, such as the Intimacy and Cancer Facebook page led by Tess Devèze, author of A Better Normal: Your Guide to Rediscovering Intimacy After Cancer.

I encourage you to use online dating sites — not the hookup sites, but those like Match and OKCupid that let you describe yourself and what you’re seeking. An online profile lets you specify that you want to take it slowly — friends first — before moving the relationship along. Consider including something like this:

“You need to know that I’m a cancer survivor. My treatment had complications, and I’ll tell you more once we get to know each other, if a relationship develops. Maybe you have challenges, too?”

You’re not disclosing the whole story, and you don’t have to until you’re ready. Mentioning cancer and “complications” from the beginning can be your screening test to weed out men who aren’t right for you anyway. This saves you time and emotional investment.

You’re also inviting men who live with the effects of cancer treatment themselves. They have their own concerns about how to disclose their limitations, such as erectile dysfunction. They need an understanding partner who knows that sexual pleasure — including orgasms! —doesn’t depend on erections.

Revealing with Words

You ask how to have “a” conversation. I’d advise you to have several conversations, saying what you feel comfortable revealing in stages. If you’ve already disclosed cancer with complications, you can field questions with “I’ll tell you more when I feel comfortable. Don’t ask for now.” Then get to know each other.

If there’s interest and chemistry, reveal more as you go, rather than having the Big Reveal all at once. Give your date a chance to absorb what you’re telling him. If he bails, that says more about him that about you. You are not defective.

Revealing Your Body

Once you feel comfortable enough to move forward sexually, you can set boundaries for the kind of intimacy you want, step by step. Sex isn’t all or nothing. You can put your chest off limits at first if that makes you feel more at ease. You don’t need to go nude until you want to. You can have great sex while wearing a lacy camisole or just undress your bottom half. Say what you do and don’t want, for example, “I don’t want my chest area touched. If I change my mind, I’ll move your hand.”

I hope you find a partner who values you and sees your beauty and sexiness. You deserve that. I wish you the best.

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Joan Price has been Senior Planet’s “Sex at Our Age” columnist since 2014. She is the author of four self-help books about senior sex, including her award winners: “Naked at Our Age: Talking Out Loud about Senior Sex” and “Sex after Grief: Navigating Your Sexuality after Losing Your Beloved.” Visit Joan’s website and blog for senior sex news, views, tips, and sex toy reviews from a senior perspective. Subscribe to Joan’s free, monthly newsletter.

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