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Looking after yourself

Treatment for breast cancer can cause physical and emotional strain, so it’s important to look after your wellbeing. Many people benefit from adopting a healthier lifestyle. Eating well, being physically active and taking time out may help reduce stress and improve wellbeing.

You may find coping with body image and sexuality issues particularly difficult, and this may affect your emotions and relationships. Choosing a breast prosthesis or having a breast reconstruction may be an important step in your recovery.

Download our booklet ‘Living Well After Cancer’

You will probably find it helpful to stay active and to exercise or move about regularly. Light exercise after surgery, such as walking, can help people recover and improve their energy levels. Some women like to join a walking group or walk with friends so that exercise becomes a social event.

The amount and type of exercise you do will depend on what you are used to, how well you feel and your doctor’s advice. It is important that you wear a supportive bra to protect your breasts when you exercise.

If you have a breast reconstruction, it will be a while before you can return to vigorous exercise and you may need to modify the exercise that you do. For example, if you have an abdominal flap reconstruction, you will need to be gentle with abdominal-based exercises. You will also be encouraged to wear supportive underwear. Ask your doctor, physiotherapist or exercise physiologist about exercises you can try.

Exercise and breast reconstruction

Exercise is important for you both before and after you have breast reconstruction surgery to help you recover. Exercise before surgery can help you feel better and recover your strength faster.

For a guide to some simple exercises that you can do after breast reconstruction, see our ‘Arm & shoulder exercises after surgery poster’.

BCNA has some useful resources, including videos and a podcast, to help you start your recovery before you have surgery, as well as afterwards.

Any change in appearance after breast cancer surgery may affect the way you think and feel about yourself (your confidence and self esteem). It is normal to experience sadness and grief after breast surgery. You may find that your sense of identity or femininity has been affected.

It may take some time to get used to seeing and feeling the differences in your body. You may find that having a breast reconstruction or wearing a breast prosthesis improves your self-confidence. However, you may prefer to concentrate on accepting the changes in your body without wearing a prosthesis or having breast reconstruction.

Changing your clothing and using accessories might make you feel more confident when wearing a breast prosthesis. If you have a reconstruction, it will take time to adjust to the different way a reconstructed breast looks, feels or moves. The appearance of the breast will improve with time as scars heal and fade. Some women say it takes 3–12 months after reconstruction to feel better about their body image.

Talking to health professionals such as psychologists, counsellors or psychiatrists may be helpful. Don’t be embarrassed to ask for a referral. These health professionals may help you find strategies to help with your recovery. It may also help to talk to someone who has had a similar experience. Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information on support services.

Complementary therapies are designed to be used alongside conventional medical treatments. Therapies such as massage, relaxation and acupuncture can increase your sense of control, decrease stress and anxiety, and improve your mood. Let your doctor know about any therapies you are using or thinking about trying, as some may not be safe or evidence-based.

Alternative therapies are therapies used instead of conventional medical treatments. These are unlikely to be scientifically tested and may prevent successful treatment of the cancer. Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies as a cancer treatment.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Complementary Therapies’

Having breast cancer and treatment, including surgery, may affect your sexuality. Some women find it may be a while before they feel like resuming sexual activity after treatment for cancer – you may need to recover from the operation and get used to wearing a prosthesis or having a  reconstructed breast.

Things that lift your overall wellbeing, like eating well, exercising and relaxing, will help to boost your sexual confidence.

If you have a partner, you may be concerned about their reaction to the prosthesis or reconstruction. You may feel nervous or uncomfortable about your partner seeing you naked or you may worry that they’ll find you unattractive. You may want to talk to your partner about the changes while you’re in the hospital rather than the more intimate environment of your home.

It will take time to get used to how your body has changed. Some women may miss the pleasure they felt from the breast or nipple being stroked or kissed during sex. This may be the case even if you have a reconstruction. If breast stimulation was important to arousal before surgery, you may need to explore other ways of becoming aroused.

Some women try to avoid sexual contact, but this may not be satisfying for you and your partner. Although it may be difficult, discuss your fears and needs together. How you choose to approach intimacy depends on what suits you both. 

What if I don’t have a partner?

If you don’t have a partner, you might be concerned about forming new relationships. If you do meet someone new, you might worry about when and how to tell them that you’re wearing a breast prosthesis or have a reconstructed breast.

It isn’t easy to decide when to tell a potential sexual partner about any changes to your body. It’s natural to be worried about their reaction to seeing you naked for the first time.

Take your time and let a new partner know about the changes to your body when you feel ready. Practising what to say first may help. You might want to show the other person how your body has changed before any sexual activity so that you can both get used to how that makes you feel.

If a new relationship doesn’t work out, don’t automatically blame the cancer or how your body has changed. Relationships can end for a variety of reasons.

Call Cancer Council 13 11 20 for information on support services. You can also talk to a counsellor or psychologist, your breast care nurse or your general practitioner about your feelings.

How to manage changes in body image and sexuality

Body image

  • Wear clothes that make you feel good and get your hair or nails done.
  • Focus on yourself as a whole person (body, mind and personality) and not just the part of you that has changed.
  • Draw attention to other parts of your body by using colours, clothing, make-up or accessories.
  • Do activities that you enjoy or things that make you feel good about yourself, such as walking, listening to music, working or studying, having a
    massage, relaxing outside or volunteering.
  • Register for a free Look Good Feel Better workshop, which offers tips and techniques to help restore appearance and self-esteem for people during or after cancer treatment.

Sexuality and intimacy

  • If you are using a prosthesis, wear it in an attractive bra or camisole.
  • Wear lingerie or a camisole, or drape a scarf or sarong over your scars, if you are self-conscious.
  • Touch, hold, hug, massage and caress your partner to reassure each other of your love and attraction.
  • Be open about what you are comfortable with. You might not be ready for your breast area to be touched, or you may want your partner to specifically touch this area.
  • Dim or turn off the lights.
  • Talk to your doctor, your breast care nurse or a counsellor about any ongoing problems.

Download our booklet ‘Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer’

Featured resource

Breast Prostheses and Reconstruction

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed July 2020 by the following expert content reviewers: A/Prof Elisabeth Elder, Specialist Oncoplastic Breast Surgeon, Westmead Breast Cancer Institute and Clinical Associate Professor, The University of Sydney, NSW; Dragana Ceprnja, Senior Physiotherapist and Health Professional Educator, Westmead Hospital, NSW; Jan Davies, Consumer; Rosemerry Hodgkin, Consumer; Gillian Horton, Owner and Director, Colleen’s Lingerie and Swimwear, ACT; Ashleigh Mondolo, Clinical Nurse Consultant Breast Care Nurse, Mater Private Hospital South Brisbane, QLD; Dr Jane O’Brien, Specialist Oncoplastic Breast Cancer Surgeon, St Vincent’s Private Hospital, VIC; Moira Waters, Breast Care Nurse, Breast Cancer Care WA; Sharon Woolridge, Consumer; Rebecca Yeoh, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council Queensland. We are grateful to Amoena Australia Pty Ltd for supplying the breast form images on pages 14–16. The photographs on pages 35, 47 and 51 have been reproduced with permission from Breast Cancer: Taking Control, © Boycare Publishing 2010, and the image on page 46 has been reproduced with permission from Dr Pouria Moradi, NSW.

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