Opinion: Breast cancer survivors deserve to feel whole again

Hearing you have breast cancer is a big shock. More than 19,000 Texans will receive a breast cancer diagnosis this year.

Thanks to advancements in treatment, modern medicine, and increased screening efforts, survival rates have gone up in recent years. As more survivors are among us, it’s increasingly important to talk about what life is like after cancer.

One of the most significant reasons I became a plastic surgeon was because I wanted to help my patients restore a sense of normalcy after breast cancer.

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Breast cancer is a very intimate cancer. Women often struggle with a sense of belonging in their body after a mastectomy because, after all, a central part of their femininity is missing.

Beyond the absence of breasts, there’s another lasting consequence that can have a profound impact on quality of life for survivors and previvors: loss of sensation.

When breast tissue is removed during life-saving mastectomy surgeries, the nerves supplying sensation to the chest are removed with the tissue —which usually results in permanent numbness of the chest.

Imagine not ever being able to feel the center of your body again.

Not feeling your own hand on your chest.

Not being able to feel the embrace of a hug.

Not feeling your child resting on your chest.

I’ve seen firsthand how postoperative chest numbness can impact my patients’ well-being and their quality of life. To better understand the psychological impacts of chest numbness from a clinical perspective, I sought insight from two psychologists and got their take on why sensory loss can have such a profoundly negative impact on quality of life.

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Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a licensed clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, Calif., shared that hugs are important for our physical, mental, and emotional health. When we hug people, we feel much more connected and bonded to them. She says that chest-to-chest sensation is soothing and regulating on a neurological level.

Survivors with numbness agree that not being able to feel a hug can also have quite the opposite effect. “I did not let anyone hug me anymore because it was painful to me. I lost complete sensation of my torso and could not feel any emotion,” says Jessica de Paz, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy.

Dr. Kristen Casey, a licensed clinical psychologist in Kansas City, Mo, has seen this in her clinical practice, too. “When you can’t feel someone’s embrace, it may foster feelings of disconnection—from the other person and yourself. This can be concerning and upsetting for those who want closeness, intimacy, or solidarity with others,” says Dr. Casey.

Dr. Manly also said that numbness can be a trigger that brings back the trauma associated with a breast cancer diagnosis, surgery, and the entire process.

Increasing awareness of sensory loss following mastectomy is a mission of mine. I want patients to know that chest numbness doesn’t have to be permanent.

Thanks to modern clinical advancements, surgical intervention is an option for many women today. Breast neurotization is a nerve repair procedure during which a plastic surgeon with microsurgical training reconnects the nerves that were previously divided, using a nerve graft. The nerve regenerates at a rate of around one millimeter per day, and the goal is that sensation will be gradually restored.

Breast neurotization has gotten very sophisticated in recent years and can be performed during a primary reconstruction and many revision procedures. Even women who had a mastectomy years ago may have options.

We must normalize talking about post-mastectomy numbness—and options to overcome it. Let’s help survivors feel whole again.

Tell your friends and loved ones that chest numbness is a common, and potentially reversible, side effect of mastectomy. Breast cancer may take your breasts, but it doesn’t have to take away your power to feel a hug.

Dr. Joshua Lemmon is a board-certified plastic surgeon in Texas, specializing in advanced microsurgical reconstruction of the breast.

This article originally appeared on Corpus Christi Caller Times: Breast cancer survivors deserve to feel whole again