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One Couple's Funny and Inspiring Story of Intimacy After Breast Cancer

Article date: October 29, 2003

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Initially I felt the need to be assembled before my husband. I'd be half naked in the opposite direction, with only my bra in place.


Few people are better qualified to talk about life, love, and sex after breast cancer than Lillie Shockney. She's the patient education director at the Johns Hopkins Breast Center in Baltimore, Maryland and a very open person by nature. And 13 years ago doctors found cancer spread throughout her left breast. "I never imagined myself on that side of the bed rail," she said.

 Shockney had a mastectomy at age 38, then two years later cancer returned and the other breast had to be removed, too. She recalls sadly joking with her husband Al, "If you haven't noticed, we've just run out." The size 44D bust line she'd grown accustomed to was gone at age 40, and a medical condition prevented any kind of breast reconstruction.

Losing a breast to cancer can damage a woman's body image, feelings of attractiveness, and chill a couple's intimate, physical relationship. But within a couple months, Shockney remembers, "We ended up with my sex life being even better without my breasts. How do you like that?"

'I don't care how many breasts she's got.

Three weeks after the first mastectomy, Al Shockney whisked his wife away to a weekend cabin. He theorized that when one part of the body is lost, the others become more sensitive, like a blind person whose sense of hearing is very acute. "He said it was his mission to prove this hypothesis in 48 hours," Shockney laughed. "It forced me to talk about what I liked and didn't like," she added. "I was a grunter, I'd give signals by grunting."

Picking up again with sexual relations helped reassure Shockney that her husband still loved her. And she'll never forget what she heard him tell a friend. "He said, 'I'm so thankful I've still got her. I don't care how many breasts she's got, or arms or legs either." Still, it took several months for Shockney to feel comfortable with the change in her body. "It was stunning to look down and see my toes. I hadn't seen them since I was 12. The brain doesn't compute that the breast is gone."

In the bedroom, Lillie didn't want Al to see the scars. "Initially I felt the need to be assembled before my husband. I'd be half naked in the opposite direction, with only my bra in place."

In her work at the breast clinic, Shockney warns husbands to control their expressions when they first see the incision – his look will be branded on the woman's mind, "and that will be how she sees herself."

Stalemate in the Bedroom

Men generally don't have trouble adjusting to their partners' changed shapes explained Shockney, but unlike her own husband, "they'll be quiet and the women will think their husbands are not attracted to them anymore…. He wants to be intimate, but doesn't want to push her."

Shockney checks for this bedroom stalemate when she sees couples a few weeks after surgery. If the man says he's been waiting for his wife to ask about sex, she dispenses a sort of prescription:"Well, guess what you're doing tonight?"

Couples may need to expand their ideas about sex. "Sex is very important in a marriage, but how each person defines it may be different. Embracing and hugging can be more intimate than the act of intercourse. Women respond to touch. Also, emotion is very important," said Shockney. "We, as women, have to let men know it's safe to show emotion."

She suggests that women can wear a camisole to bed at first with a breast pocket stuffed with soft cotton batting if they feel self-conscious. "The eye looks for symmetry," she explained. Start with the lights off, then as women feel more comfortable they can bring the lights up. Books for couples can explain how to manage any discomfort from treatment. "Women should also consider letting their husbands touch the incision," Shockney suggested. "A very light touch can stimulate phantom limb sensation. About 80% of survivors can have this sensation."

Couples Develop a Closer Bond

Shockney says 98% of the couples she sees develop a closer bond due to the challenges of breast cancer. In her own marriage, "It brought our relationship to a new level that I didn't know existed. When you realize that you could lose somebody, you want to show them how much you love them."

Shockney reaches hundreds of survivors and their partners each year with her candid discussions of sex and love after breast cancer, and feels her personal experience makes her a better advocate for patients. "I truly believe I was meant to get this disease." Her life has been filled with giving speeches, supporting fund-raisers, and for women coming through the clinic, she's been living proof of life and love after breast cancer -- with or without breasts.

Then two years ago, Shockney faced a new challenge in the breast cancer journey. She learned that she could now safely undergo breast reconstruction, thanks to recent medical advances. After ten years without breasts, when her marriage became even more loving and sexually satisfying, "I had the opportunity of choice restored to me."

Read Part II of this profile online, and learn more from Lillie Shockney in "Breast Cancer and Intimacy," a Discovery Health TV special produced in association with the American Cancer Society. It airs October 30, 2003 at 8 and 11pm ET/PT.