Stories of Hope
Part II: The Amazing, Funny, Inspiring Story of Intimacy After Breast Cancer
Article date: October 29, 2003
My husband said, 'I feel like I'm sleeping with another woman with my wife's permission.
That breast cancer is an emotionally-charged illness is clear to anyone touched by the disease, especially survivor and oncology nurse Lillie Shockney. But 10 years after beating cancer, she was truly shocked to be facing another wrenching decision about her breasts.
Changes in medicine had made it possible for her to safely go through reconstructive surgery – an option she'd never dreamed of because she appeared to be dangerously allergic to many pain medications.
Shockney lost both breasts to cancer before she turned 40. At first she wasn't sure how her husband would react, but their relationship and sex life both improved. Her husband Al didn't see a need for new breasts, "Please don't do this for me," he said. So what could rebuilt breasts do for a happily married woman?
Shockney struggled with that question. She rejected the idea that breasts are what make a woman feminine. In her work as a patient educator and advocate at the Johns Hopkins Breast Clinic in Maryland she thought the doctors pushed too hard for newly-diagnosed women to consider reconstruction.
"I asked why women must see a plastic surgeon," said Shockney. "The doctor said, 'Women need permission to choose. They're in such a state of shock about the disease. They just want it off their chests. I'm giving them permission.'"
Another comment struck a chord with Shockney: "You were born with two breasts and you have the right to have two breasts." Patients who are eligible for reconstruction are advised to think hard about their own emotions, rather than what society and other people expect to see. Does losing a breast make a woman feel incomplete or is it just a bump in the road of life?
Meet 'The Girls'
To be restored to something close to her previous shape was appealing to Shockney. She had inherited her grandmother's ample proportions and felt comfortable with that figure for more than 25 years.
In the end, Shockney decided the song "Sexual Healing" playing on her car radio was a sign to go ahead with breast reconstruction. "I needed an irrational sign," she explained. "In December, 2002, I had breast reconstruction done, so now we have 'the girls,'" she said with a laugh.
Surgeons at Johns Hopkins used the DIEP flap method (deep inferior epigastric perforator) to form breasts out of tissue and fat removed from Shockney's tummy area. The procedure does not use a woman's abdominal muscles like the TRAM flap method and leaves her with a flat tummy as a bonus.
A careful review found that two pain medicines used together caused Shockney to have respiratory failure in a previous surgery. Different anesthesia was used during the long DIEP surgery without any problems.
Back on Top
Shockney is very pleased with the results of the surgery. "It has exceeded my expectations. I didn't expect to have the sensation that I have. It's amazing in the right breast. It's not an erotic feeling, but with visualization, it is erotic."
Since her mastectomies, Shockney had been careful to position herself so her husband wouldn't be staring at her incisions. "I would avoid being on top, but now, I'm back on top again," she laughed. Her husband Al noted, "I feel like I'm sleeping with another woman with my wife's permission."
There are fewer limitations in shopping for clothes, and Shockney is amazed at what bras can now do for a woman's shape. Her 23-year-old daughter helped Shockney wade through dozens of styles, colors, sheer fabrics, animal prints, and shapes to find the right fit for "the girls."
Shockney's mother wanted to see the results of the plastic surgery, so Lillie pulled up her blouse. The older woman marveled at what doctors can do today. "These are little miracles," she said.
It's still hard for Shockney to put into words her own reasons for having breast reconstruction. "I had the opportunity of choice restored to me," she said. "I made my choice." But she is absolutely sure that she developed and survived breast cancer so she could make a difference in other people's lives. She has a survivor's knowledge of what it's like to have breast cancer, and she uses that understanding to better guide patients through the physical and emotional journey. "I truly believe I was meant to get this disease."