Medicine: Breast Cancer: Fear and Facts

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A common feeling among mastectomy patients is that they will be rejected by their husbands or lovers, and some in fact are. Though few marriages have broken up solely as a result of the operation, many troubled marriages have been pushed past the point of no return by a husband's inability to accept his wife's operation. "My husband is an alcoholic, and this was just one more thing he couldn't handle," says Mrs. Judy Keating, 37, of Atlanta. "He told me my scar was downright ugly."

Stable marriages not only survive the surgery but often seem strengthened by it. Says Happy Rockefeller: "My experience is that this is the sort of thing that brings families even closer together." Some husbands are so grateful that their wives are alive that they quickly overcome any adjustment problems. Mrs. Martha Knighton, 44, of Atlanta, attempted to apologize to her husband Don after her operation. "You signed up for a matched pair and I've broken up the set," she said. But Don dispelled her fears. "Every day my hair falls out," he said, "I'm not the same either."

Social Test. Married women generally resume normal sexual activities as soon as they recover from their operations. But single women tend to find the adjustment more difficult. One of Fashion Consultant Jean Tyler's male friends was obviously uneasy over the fact that she had lost a breast. "He was terribly nice and understanding, but I noticed that he kept me at arm's length all evening," she recalls. There are some single women who even feel that a mastectomy has some social value; it provides a good test of any relationship.

Sex is not the only trial for single women who have had mastectomies. Employers are sometimes unwilling to promote them for fear that they may not last long on the job. They also have problems in obtaining medical insurance that married women can get more easily through working husbands. Then there are those patronizing or oversolicitous friends. "You always have to look 'on,' at the office," says Jane Bingham, 36, a Manhattan journalist who had a mastectomy in 1971. "I couldn't have a hangover or a cold or just feel rotten without people starting to buzz."

Reordered Priorities. The woman who undergoes surgery for breast cancer has little trouble finding someone willing to help her overcome its aftermath. Reach to Recovery, an organization composed of mastectomees (TIME, Oct. 14), sends volunteers around to hospitals to visit postoperative patients. They suggest exercises that will help women regain their strength and offer advice on where to obtain breast prostheses and clothing tailored to their particular needs. Memorial Hospital runs its own encounter-style rehabilitation program to assist the physical and psychological recovery of patients.

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