ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. - Pamela Couse is in a good place these days. She cherishes her roles as grandmother, mother, and wife. She's grateful after surviving a difficult punch delivered through testing a few years ago.
"It actually came back that I had two types of cancer. I had both breast cancer and cervical cancer,” Couse recalled.
Treatments, extensive surgery and a mastectomy on her left side followed.
"I felt like the bride of Frankenstein. I have scars all over. They're not pretty and initially they made me feel less than human because when I looked in the mirror I didn't look like me," Couse said.
She pushed away intimacy, fearing how her husband would see her.
"He respected that for a while and then I think he realized this was something so much more than just being tired and not feeling well," said Couse.
But a conversation changed that.
"I was afraid he would find it as unattractive as I did and instead he put his arms around me and told me I was beautiful and he was just glad that I was alive and that it didn't matter what I looked like," Couse continued.
Dr. Rick Weinberg, an associate professor of psychology at the University of South Florida, said communication is key.
"Talk with their husbands about their own individual needs and try to help their husbands understand whatever their emotions may be. There may be some sadness. There may be some anger. There may be a loss of self-esteem, a loss of a sense of their body's integrity,” Dr. Weinberg explained.
Like Couse's husband, spouses and partners of survivors need to be reassuring.
"Always remind their wives, their girlfriends what they love about them and how much they love them,” Dr. Weinberg advised.
"If a man loves you because of your breasts or whether you have one or two or what the size are, they're probably not the right man for you," Couse offered.
Alisa Savoretti is a former showgirl, breast cancer survivor, and a founder of My Hope Chest, which helps fund reconstruction surgery for breast cancer survivors. She reminds women it's not your body that defines you.
"Cancer doesn't change who you are. It's a moment in time. It's a chapter in the book of life. And if intimacy is affected for that moment, you will regain it. You will regain your self-confidence, whether you have reconstruction or not," said Savoretti.
Couse, who decided against reconstruction, agrees with that.
"If you're OK with how you look and how you're feeling, everyone else will be too,” she added.
LINK: For more information about My Hope Chest, visit www.myhopechest.org