Elise Fernandez lost both breasts to cancer two years ago. Last year, she met the man of her dreams.
“I was diagnosed a month before my 35th birthday. I learned that I was going to lose my right breast completely. I chose to have the mastectomy as part of a decision that would prolong my life.”
According to Fernandez, one of her biggest fears was being confronted with a new relationship.
Marissa Weiss, an American oncologist, founder of an online resource Breastcancer.org and co-author of Living Beyond Breast Cancer, says: “Single women who want to become part of a relationship worry how breast cancer will affect their prospects and how and when to tell those prospective lovers about their condition.”
For Fernandez, the prospect of dating was daunting.
“I have been a single mum for 16 years,” she says. “My boyfriend, Brandon, proved to be a huge source of comfort, inspiration and support. He has shown me that even though I’ve lost my breast, I’m still a beautiful woman and that he loves me despite my scars.”
Unfortunately not all breast cancer survivors ride off into the sunset with their prince, and 27-year-old Claudia Zwane is one such. At just 23, Zwane was diagnosed with breast cancer.
Her boyfriend became a source of comfort. “He was a great support for me when I was diagnosed and went through chemotherapy. He was there for me and basically did everything right,” she says.
It was exactly this kind of fussy attention that many people think sufferers want in a relationship, that finally drove them apart.
“Sometimes people don’t understand that we don’t need pity and people constantly hovering and coddling us. Unfortunately, my boyfriend treated me more like a patient and an invalid,” she says.
According to Weiss, it’s not just the cancer survivor’s sexual life that gets disrupted by treatment. “There are the most obvious issues – the physical changes, exhaustion, nausea and pain from treatment, self-image, empty energy reserves, and the emotional chaos from the diagnosis itself. But there are also many other issues that women and their partners may not even know they’ll have to face,” says Weiss.
Zwane understands this very well – she and her ex even tried to give things a go for a second time but it just wouldn’t work.
“What I loved about him was that he never made me feel uncomfortable about undressing in front of him. But now I don’t know if I’ll be just as comfortable with someone else.”
Both Zwane and Fernandez admit to some initial worries after mastectomy. Zwane says: “I’m a naturally confident person. But to be honest, I’d think twice before undressing in front of anyone because of my scars. Plus my breasts are not the same size.”
Fernandez has found being in a relationship a source of comfort when it comes to her body image.
“When I was single, I worried about what man would want me. It was a difficult period but I learned to embrace my body.”
Weiss says studies have shown that the loss of a breast hardly matters to a partner when their loved one’s life is spared. “Most caring partners see their lovers as having many parts to love, and as being more than the sum of those parts.”
As for Zwane, she has thrown herself back into the market. “I don’t want to be with anyone who is not properly informed about breast cancer,” she insists.
»?From October 9 to 16, Zwane, Fernandez and other breast cancer survivors will make their Journey of Hope bike ride from Durban to Cape Town. They will spread the message that the disease has a 95% survival rate if detected and treated early. Wish them well at uShaka Marine World on October 9 at 9am.