A Feisty Women's Discussion about Breast Cancer with Elaine Ratner

Last Editorial Review: 10/23/2003

WebMD Live Events Transcript

Join Elaine Ratner, author of The Feisty Woman's Breast Cancer Book for a discussion about meeting the emotional and psychological challenges surrounding Breast Cancer .

Event Date: 03/17/2000

The opinions expressed herein are the guests' alone and have not been reviewed by a WebMD physician. If you have questions about your health, you should consult your personal physician. This event is meant for informational purposes only.

Moderator: Welcome to the Women's Health Place Program on WebMD Live. Our guest today is Elaine Ratner, author of The Feisty Woman's Breast Cancer Book.

Elaine Ratner is a publisher, freelance writer and editor. As a woman who's been through breast cancer, she has thought a lot about the emotional and psychological challenges. She is bothered by the overly negative and often distorted image women have about breast cancer, which she fears sometimes gets in the way of their handling their cancer experience well. Ratner is especially upset that the popular culture has focused women's attention so strongly on their breasts as the source of their womanliness and their ticket to love that the thought of losing a breast has become a major trauma in itself. She wants her book to reassure women that you are the same person with or without a breast, and that no one is going to stop loving you because you've had a mastectomy.

Welcome to WebMD Live, Elaine. It is a pleasure having you here today.

Please feel free to ask Elaine Ratner your questions about meeting the emotional and psychological challenges surrounding Breast Cancer. Elaine is not a medical doctor, but she is happy to address your questions and concerns. Please preface your question with /ask. EXAMPLE: /ask What is the topic?

Ratner: Thank you, Natasha. I'm glad to be here and looking forward to some interesting discussion.

Moderator: Elaine, let's start by talking about what you call "The Breast Myth." Would you tell our members about your take on this, please?

Ratner: OK. What I refer to as the breast myth is the impression given to women by our popular culture that a woman's breasts are the source of her femininity and in many cases women believe that our breasts are the reason we are loved. This, of course, simply isn't true.

Ellafit_WebMD: This is really interesting, why do you think many women get reconstructive surgery? so it is not obvious to anyone that they have had cancer?

Ratner: I think it's partly that. But I think women have also been convinced that if they have only one breast they are no longer complete women. They think in order to feel good about themselves and to be "acceptable" to others, to be a normal woman (whatever that means), they have to look like other women. What surprised me in my own experience was discovering that I could feel just as comfortable with my lopsided body as I did with my "normal" body. In fact, I am more comfortable with my body now. We've been through a lot together.

Moderator: I like that - you've been through a lot with each other- what a wonderful perspective. I think a lot of women feel really estranged form their bodies when diagnosed.  How did you find a comfortable relationship with your body?

Ratner: That is certainly true. And it takes some work getting to the place where you can feel okay. I certainly don't mean to say it's easy. I took it one step at a time. First getting used to my image in the mirror. Then realizing no one besides me and my husband really cared how many breasts I had. You think everyone is going to be looking at you and judging you, but most people are too busy with their own lives to notice. I've also discovered that most people take their cue from you. If you feel like you're okay, and act okay, other people think you're okay too.

Moderator: You have a checklist at the beginning of your book, The Feisty Woman's Breast Cancer Book,.things you wish someone would have shared with you at the beginning of your breast cancer experience. Would you share this list with our Members, please?

Ratner: There are 18 things I realized after my experience were key, and that I wished I'd heard sooner. 

1. A breast is completely expendable.

2. You may die of breast cancer, but you probably won't.

3. There is enough time.

4. Worry makes things worse.

5. Surround yourself with people who make you feel good.

6. Don't shut out your family, especially children.

7. Think about all you have to live for.

8. It's important to know what's important to you.

9. Insist on a doctor you trust.

10. Nobody really knows much about breast cancer.

11. Try anything that might help.

12. Expectations influence outcome.

13. The human body is a miraculous healing machine.

14. A one-breasted body isn't ugly, just different.

15. Losing a breast doesn't have to affect your sex life.

16. Wisdom and strength are aftereffects of breast cancer.

17. If you want things to change, you have to speak up.

18. We all need to change our attitudes toward women's breasts.

Those 18 insights are the basis of the whole book, a chapter on each.

ladyg2_WebMD: I am struggling with the worry one...not about myself, but my kids and my husband, any suggestions?

Ratner: I have a whole chapter on this, but let me try a short response. My daughter was 8 when I was diagnosed. I decided from the start to include her in every way I could. This was important to me because my brother died of cancer when I was 6 and he was 8. I was excluded from all that went on. My parents thought they were protecting me, but I was very hurt by the experience and I think it seriously damaged my relationship with my mother. My daughter came with me to check-ups, helped me change bandages,  saw me go through everything. Now she is pretty matter of fact about breast cancer. She knows she's at risk, but she also knows she can handle it because she saw me handle it. I also made a major effort to communicate with my husband and talk about how I was feeling--and how he was feeling---every step of the way. It was hard at first, for him I think more than for me but it strengthened our relationship. And I don't know how I would have gotten through breast cancer without him. He is, in fact, sitting beside me now. He came to be with me for this discussion, because he knows how much I need his support in anything I do that scares me even a little. And this is my first chat, and the technology scares me.

mold28_WebMD: How can I support my partner while she's wrestling with the decision of whether or not to have reconstructive surgery following mastectomy?

Ratner: It's a difficult decision, and ultimately it has to be hers. I think the best thing you can do to support her is to let her know, in every way you can, that you care about her, with or without breasts. If she knows she doesn't have to worry about losing your love, she'll be better able to make her decision based on medical realities and not based on fear. We are all terrified of losing love. Make sure she knows she doesn't have to worry. Then listen to her, talk with her, give her your perspective and opinions, and let her know whatever she decides is okay with you. (But you need to really feel that way, or it won't work.)

Moderator: Elaine, You mentioned in your book that ritual can play a powerful role during one's battle with this disease...could we talk about this a little bit?

Ratner: I realized at some point that I had been using rituals to keep myself from falling apart, with really knowing it. I noticed how I would come back to my car after an appointment and immediately want to listen to one of my favorite tapes, and I noticed how that seemed to make my tensions melt away. I think we all have things we do to make ourselves feel better, to reduce tension, worry, whatever is knocking us off our game. I started using some of those rituals deliberately like taking a bubble bath, or wearing something I felt good in. Anything that reminded me that I was still me helped me get through all the difficult times, when I sometimes felt like "a cancer patient" rather than the person I think of myself as being. It's a little trick you can play on yourself. It feels good and reminds you that you are not your illness. You are you.

ladyg2_WebMD: Do you ever find it challenging at public swimming pools or the like?

Ratner: I don't swim a whole lot, but I do have a bathing suit I "stuffed" kind of like a prosthesis. It's the only time I don't go just lopsided. I did it because the bathing suit felt weird with one empty cup, and no one I know of makes a suit that is flat on one side. I actually wrote to Lands End and suggested they make one. They didn't respond. I guess they don't believe one-breasted women would buy them, but I would. Why shouldn't we be comfortable when we swim, just like everyone else?

janet_05_WebMD: I am bc survivor do you think reconstruction helps in the healing process?

Ratner: I think it's a very personal decision. I don't think it would have helped me, but I know some women say it has helped them. I don't like the idea of surgery as an answer to a body image problem, which I think is psychological rather than physical,  but I would never tell another woman what to do on this. It's as personal as anything gets.

Ellafit_WebMD: There is an awesome photograph of a women who has had a mastectomy with a beautiful tattoo along her scar have you seen it? I've seen an article on women celebrating their scars with tattoos...an interesting trend.  I have a poster of that photo on my wall at home, and have for several years now. It reminds me that a woman is a wonderful creature, with or without a breast. I actually considered a tattoo at one point to hide my scar but it is hardly noticeable now, and I don't feel the need. The day I told my surgeon I was thinking of getting a tattoo was the day he stopped bugging me to get reconstruction.

Moderator: I love that! We are just about out of time. 

Moderator: Elaine, Thank you very much for joining us for this important discussion. It was really a pleasure having you here today. I hope you will consider returning to WebMD to talk with our Members again.

Ratner: Thank you Natasha. I've enjoyed it, and would love to come back.

Moderator: Elaine Ratner's book is a wonderful resource for breast cancer patients and their families. A Feisty Woman's Breast Cancer Book is available now at your local or online bookstore. 

Members, please check out our Member to Member Breast Cancer Message Boards and join us March 31 at 3pm EST for a discussion on Young Women and Breast Cancer with Joy Simha, president of the Young Survival Coalition and Dr. Jeanne Petrek, breast surgeon of Memorial Sloan-Kettering.

Thanks to everyone for joining us, a wonderful weekend to all

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