Say the Right Thing

When a woman has a double mastectomy, her partner shouldn’t be at a loss for words


With help from Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie is recovering from a double mastectomy.

After Angelina Jolie learned she carried a “faulty” BRCA1 gene, which dramatically increases the risk of breast cancer, she had a double mastectomy. By her side was fiance Brad Pitt, who said, “All I want is for her to have a long and healthy life, with myself and our children.”

Not every guy is quite as perfect.

When Elissa Bantug of Columbia, Md., came home after her double mastectomy in 2005, her live-in boyfriend slept in the guest room to give her “space to spread out and heal.” Bantug wishes she’d said, “I need you here.’ ”

Conversation doesn’t always come easily when mastectomy is the subject, says oncology counselor Shara Sosa of Life with Cancer, a Fairfax-based support program.

She’s heard men joke, “Look, babe, you get a free boob job!” Some women might laugh; others will cringe. Even the best-intentioned remark (“I never cared about your breasts”) can backfire if the woman is mourning their loss.

“It’s OK [for the partner] to say, ‘I miss them, too,’ ” says Lindsey Hoskins, a marriage therapist in Bethesda. Then add: “I love you for all the parts of you. I’m not going to love you any less.”

While Jolie has said she feels “beautiful” after her reconstructive surgery, couples may struggle. A rebuilt-breast-in-progress, with drains and red incisions, might bring a look of shock or confusion to the partner’s face, says Lillie Shockney, administrative director of the Johns Hopkins Breast Center. Reviewing photos that depict the stages of reconstruction can be instructive.

After surgery, a couple’s intimate life may change. A reconstructed breast offers diminished sexual sensation in some patients, no feeling in others. Women have told Sosa, “I let him touch them but it’s not enjoyable.”

Sosa suggests women be direct about what they do want. Recovering from her double mastectomy, Sue Friedman, who heads the group Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered, would tell her husband exactly what she needed. Some days it would be “Tell me I’m beautiful.”

Partners, meanwhile, can make amends for mess-ups. Ask for a do-over, Sosa advises. And plead ignorance: “I don’t know what this is like for you, but I’ll be with you every step of the way.”

Bantug and her boyfriend can testify that it’s possible to rebound from a rocky start. They did go on to talk about her surgery. He told her that cosmetic concerns are “just that — superficial.”

Today, they’re happily married with kids.

Resources

A woman who’s tested positive for a BRCA mutation — or who wants to find out if she’s at risk — can turn to several groups for support:

-Bright Pink (Brightpink.org). The informative site for this national group has an online quiz to assess risk. Contact the D.C. metro chapter at WashingtonDC@bebrightpink.org.

-Facing Our Risk of Cancer Empowered (Facingourrisk.org). With the acronym FORCE, this national group has a comprehensive site, with tools to record your medical history. The website can connect you to the D.C.-area chapter.

-Life With Cancer (Lifewithcancer.org). Its “Hereditary Breast Cancer Group” meets at 7:15 p.m. on the fourth Wednesday of the month at LWC’s Family Center in Fairfax.

Marc Silver is the author of the 2004 book “Breast Cancer Husband.”

Marc Silver has been watching TV since the days when people wrapped aluminum foil around TV antennae to improve reception.
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