Here’s an interesting article in Salon by Ann Bauer, “Sex Without Nipples,” about the differential between counseling and treatment offered to cancer patients about sexual issues in men’s versus women’s cancer surgeries. Sadly, I’m not surprised–as we’ve seen before, somehow it’s all about teh menz and their feelings and their sexual satisfaction, no matter whose body has the cancer. Whereas prostate cancer patients are counseled heavily about the sexual side-effects of their cancer treatments, women who opt for mastectomies are never advised about the possible consequences to their sex lives. Bauer writes:
This is particularly true, it seems, when the topic is nipples. Virtually none of the literature or education around the topic of breast cancer covers the sudden disappearance of erotic sensation in the breast. There is no attempt, as there is in a prostatectomy, to preserve the nerves. Modern mastectomy simply hacks off the offending tissue and creates a blank area where there once was tingling current.
There are also body-image issues after breast cancer surgery and reconstruction, for patients and their partners. But, one young woman who tested positive for BRCA1 and chose to have a preventive double mastectomy makes it sound like her partner’s discomfort and even disgust with her surgery, recuperation, and new body were another problem for her to solve, a problem she didn’t handle well enough. “Jessie”‘s own mother had died at age 30, and she had five other maternal relatives die from the disease–so she figured, why take the chance?
But her boyfriend disagreed. He was angry and felt she hadn’t taken his feelings into account. He grew increasingly uncomfortable and remote throughout the procedure: double mastectomy, reconstruction of the breasts using cadaver tissue, and a messy, gory aftermath involving lymphatic drains.
At the time, Jessie was entirely focused on her own body and its recovery. [ed. note: selfish, selfish woman! How dare she?] She didn’t want to die. And how, exactly, was she supposed to negotiate this decision with her lover when no expert she consulted ever mentioned sex?
Looking back, she says she wishes she had handled it differently. [Emphasis Historiann’s.] Her boyfriend really tried. He stayed. He helped her to the bathroom and brought her Vicodin at 4 a.m. [ed. note: big deal! Isn’t that what you would do for anyone recovering from major surgery?]
“If I could talk to women, I’d tell them do not let your man drain you,” Jessie says, referring to the process of emptying and measuring the bloody lymphatic fluid siphoned off by her surgical drains. “That whole area is just a mess. I think my partner couldn’t deal with the act of being a caregiver. And a lot is written about the women’s side of it, but I don’t think men get due credit for what it does to him.”
This is clearly a failure of 1) this man, who was incapable of assuming the responsibilities of a committed relationship, and 2) standard breast cancer therapies and counseling, which are focused on the restoration of the cosmetic rather than the sexual sensations of reconstructed breasts. Although even if breast cancer therapies addressed the woman’s sexual sensations and sexual functioning after mastectomy, I’m pretty sure all of the sex therapy in the world would be wasted on trying to get me excited about a man who thought my mastectomy was all about him and his feelings.) Fortunately, this couple broke up, and I suppose it was better that “Jessie” find out what a creep her boyfriend was as an otherwise healthy young woman. Lord help her had she follwed his wishes to keep her breasts, and she got cancer and then had to count on him to get her through it all.
I just don’t understand the fetishization of a body part that this kind of attitude implies–a fetishization that puts a body part above the health and well-being of his girlfriend. This fetishization also renders a body part no longer part of a human body–not flesh, blood, and lymphatic fluid, somehow. (What did this guy imagine is inside a breast? Confetti? Butterscotch pudding? Or, as The Forty Year Old Virgin put it, “sand?”) Yet “Jessie” blames herself for her genetically imperfect breasts and her lymphatic drains, which apparently really spoiled the show for her boyfriend.
Of course our illnesses and amputations affect not just patients but our friends and loved ones, but I always assumed it was because they love us and don’t want us to be sick or to die, not because they can’t imagine being our friends or lovers unless our bodies are whole and perfectly healthy. I can completely understand that breast cancer patients and their partners would mourn the loss of what they had thought was a perfect and healthy body. But–what a turd this guy is. Apparently in retrospect, he acknowledges this. When Bauer introduced “Jessie” in the article, she explained that “Jessie” is “a pseudonym — while she wouldn’t mind using her real name, her ex would be mortified, she says.” You don’t say! I wonder what he tells the other women he dates when explaining why he and “Jessie” broke up?