(BPT) - For all the education that’s out there on breast cancer and various treatment options, there’s one thing you probably aren’t aware of: Women who undergo a mastectomy can experience anywhere from partial to complete numbness in their chest — sometimes permanently.
“I remember taking my newborn daughter into my arms and putting her on my chest — but I couldn’t feel her skin. I didn’t know that she was there unless I looked at her,” says Jane, a breast cancer survivor who underwent a double mastectomy.
During a mastectomy, the nerves that supply sensation to the breasts are cut so that the breast tissue can be removed. For some people, this results in total or partial loss of feeling in their chest.
This can leave some without the ability to feel touch, pressure, warmth or cold on their chest. Imagine not being able to feel the full embrace of a hug or your child’s head resting on your chest. Moreover, imagine having no awareness that you’re experiencing a wardrobe malfunction or that you’re getting a sunburn. Not being able to feel roughly 10% of your body can be very disorienting, physically and psychologically.
Post-mastectomy numbness and the after-effects come as a surprise for many people. Even if loss of sensation was mentioned or covered in the paperwork leading up to surgery, many still feel like they were ill-informed about what to expect after mastectomy and the impact it may have on their lives day to day.
Numbness greatly affects quality of life for many women and is a source of ongoing grief about what was lost, a constant reminder of the trauma they experienced, and a barrier to fully recovering physically, psychologically and emotionally.
Our connection to loved ones starts with the chest. “It’s part of what we present to the world. It’s our heart space, for women in particular,” says Dr. Carla Marie Manly, a licensed clinical psychologist in Santa Rosa, Calif. “Skin-to-skin contact in the first hour after birth. Breastfeeding. Hugs. The chest is a life-long source of comfort, love, nourishment and connection. Imagine that connection being severed by numbness following mastectomy.”
“Physical touch and sensation are two senses that help us navigate life. So total chest numbness may result in physical, psychosocial, intimacy and self-esteem issues,” says Dr. Kristen Casey, a licensed clinical psychologist in Kansas City, Mo. “Numbness has a significant impact on quality of life for a number of people I’ve counseled. For women, breasts often signify an extra layer of safety that protects them and their heart and lungs. And for those experiencing numbness, that protection can feel non-existent. It’s almost like there’s a blank part of them — one missing puzzle piece they can’t find. And that’s really difficult.”
“Feeling whole and connected to oneself has many layers to it. And because our bodies are our home, if we cannot feel a part of our own body, we can feel disconnected from ourselves as individuals,” adds Dr. Manly. “When we don’t feel fully connected to ourselves, that can affect how we relate with others. If we feel less confident, broken or disoriented, we may be hesitant to let people in. When a woman feels good about herself, she will show up more magnificently in the world.”
The good news is that numbness following mastectomy doesn’t have to be permanent. During breast reconstruction, surgeons can reconnect the nerves that were previously cut using a nerve allograft to potentially restore sensation.
With advancements in surgical techniques and technology, it’s possible for women to not only look — but also feel — like themselves again after breast cancer. But more people need to be aware of post-mastectomy numbness and be educated on options to potentially restore feeling.
So, tell your family members, friends, coworkers and neighbors: breast cancer may take your breasts, but it doesn’t have to take away your power to feel a hug.
Learn about Resensation®, a surgical technique designed to restore sensation, at Resensation.com.