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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’

Staying active

You will probably find it helpful to stay active. Light exercise after surgery, such as walking, can help people recover and improve their energy levels.

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 exercises. You will also be encouraged to wear supportive underwear. Ask your doctor, breast care nurse, physiotherapist or exercise physiologist about exercises you can try.

Exercise and breast reconstruction

Exercise is important before and after breast reconstruction surgery to help get your arm and shoulder moving again. 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 a breast reconstruction, see our ‘Arm & shoulder exercises after surgery poster’.

Breast Cancer Network Australia has videos and a podcast to help you start your recovery before you have surgery, as well as afterwards.

Download our booklet ‘Exercise for People Living with Cancer’

Complementary therapies

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. Many alternative therapies have not been scientifically tested, so there is no proof they stop cancer growing or spreading. Others have been tested and shown to be harmful to people with cancer or not to work. Cancer Council does not recommend the use of alternative therapies as a cancer treatment.

Download our booklet ‘Understanding Complementary Therapies’

Listen to our podcast ‘Finding Calm During Cancer’

Body image

Any change to your appearance after breast cancer surgery may affect the way you think and feel about yourself, including 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 and moves. The appearance of the breast will improve with time as scars heal and fade. It may take some time for you to adjust to the  changes to your body image after reconstruction.

You may also be concerned about how others perceive the changes to your body, and this may affect your relationships and interest in sex.

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.

Sexuality and intimacy

Having treatment for breast cancer may affect your sexuality. It may take time for you to feel like resuming sexual activity after treatment for cancer – you may need to recover from the operation and get used to wearing a prosthesis, going flat or having a reconstructed breast.

Things that improve your overall wellbeing, such as eating well, exercising and relaxing, may help to boost your sexual confidence.

If you have a partner, you may be concerned about how they will react to your new body shape. You may feel nervous about a partner seeing you naked or 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. You may miss the pleasure you 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.

While you’re recovering, try to touch and stroke your mastectomy scar or your reconstructed breast regularly to help you become familiar with the new sensation, so that when you are touched by your partner, your brain has adjusted to the “new normal”.

Changes to your body may mean you avoid sexual contact. This may not be satisfying for you and your partner. Although it may be difficult, share your fears and needs with them.

What if I don’t have a partner?

If you don’t have a partner, you might be anxious or uncertain about forming new relationships. If you meet someone new, you might worry about when and how to tell them that you’re wearing a breast prosthesis, have scars or have a reconstructed breast – and you may worry about how they may react.

It isn’t easy to decide when to tell a potential 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, before you talk to them, 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. Do what feels right for you.

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.

You might find it helpful to talk through any concerns you have about meeting someone new. 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 GP about your feelings.

We’ve become more intimate on other non-sexual levels. Cancer has opened up a whole lot of things, quite surprisingly.” KERRY

How to manage changes in body image and sexuality

Body image

  • Wear clothes that make you feel good.
  • 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.
  • Consider having a decorative tattoo. This may make you feel more confident by acknowledging what you’ve been through or disguising a scar.
  • Take part in a photo shoot.
  • 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. Visit Look Good Feel Better or call them on 1800 650 960.

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 if you prefer.
  • Talk to your doctor, your breast care nurse or a counsellor about any ongoing problems.

Download our booklet ‘Sexuality, Intimacy and Cancer’

Download our booklet ‘LGBTQI+ People and Cancer’

Featured resource

Breast Prostheses and Reconstruction

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This information is reviewed by

This information was last reviewed November 2023 by the following expert content reviewers: Dr Jane O’Brien, Specialist Oncoplastic Breast Cancer Surgeon, St Vincent’s Private Hospital, VIC; Clare Bradshaw, Clinical Nurse Consultant, Breast Assessment Unit, Fiona Stanley Hospital, WA; Rene Hahn, Consumer; Sinead Hanley, Consumer; Dr Marc Langbart, Specialist Plastic and Reconstructive Surgeon, Randwick Plastic Surgery, NSW; Melanie Law, Consumer; Sally Levy, Consumer; Annmaree Mitchell, Consumer; Ashleigh Mondolo, Breast Cancer Nurse Clinical Consultant, Mater Private Hospital Brisbane, QLD; Rochelle Osgood, Clinical Nurse Consultant – McGrath Breast Care Nurse, Sunshine Coast University Hospital, QLD: Dr Kallyani Ponniah, Head of Department, Breast Centre, Sir Charles Gairdner Hospital, WA; Meg Rynderman OAM, Consumer; Sarah Stewart, Breast Care Nurse, The Royal Women’s Hospital, VIC; Erin Tidball, 13 11 20 Consultant, Cancer Council NSW; Jane Turner, Senior Exercise Physiologist, Sydney Cancer Survivorship Centre, Concord Cancer Centre, NSW.

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