Husbands play a vital role in helping wives with breast cancer overcome their fears and their illness, says Doris Cheung Chun-ho, head of the Hong Kong Breast Cancer Foundation’s Breast Health Centre.
Counsellors at the centre encourage men to show more affection to their wives through hugging, kissing and holding hands – any gesture, Cheung explains, that says, “I still love you even though you don’t have a breast,” and “You are not just your breasts.”
The 3,000 or so women diagnosed with breast cancer in Hong Kong each year need support to adjust and cope with the many challenges they face, both physical and mental.
The psychological challenges in particular can be tough in Chinese society where cancer, especially breast cancer, remains a taboo topic for many, Cheung says. Patients have to cope with a sense of loss after a partial or total mastectomy and the impact on their sense of femininity.
“They may think negatively, and feel they are not as complete as they were before and start to question if they are still a woman and if they are attractive any more,” Cheung says. Such a mindset can lead to depression and suicide, especially if the patient feels abandoned by loved ones.
The disease often disrupts relationships. “Fighting cancer is fighting with the whole family, including the husband or your intimate ones,” Cheung says. Some husbands don’t know how to comfort, or even face, their wife when she is undergoing such a health crisis; in such situations, it is paramount couples get support to help with their adjustment and address solutions to their problems.
The Breast Health Centre provides individual and family counselling sessions to gauge the seriousness of issues and how the couples are coping. Sometimes Cheung recommends specialists who can provide further support.
Some breast cancer patients lose interest in sex or have symptoms that pose obstacles for intimacy. Hormonal therapy can result in discomfort in the bedroom, as can a full or partial mastectomy, affecting relations with loved loves. If intimacy-related concerns are present, Cheung recommends sex therapy to help such couples.
Meeting with fellow breast cancer survivors can also help women open up about their fears and challenges, a vital stage in the coping process.
“The commonality in the group makes them feel safe and able to discuss such topics openly with other patients that may share the same issues,” Cheung says. “Sometimes solutions may be raised.”
For more information on support services or other advice, call 2525 6033 and ask for the Breast Cancer Support Centre, which offers individual and group counselling.