OBJECTIVE: Breast cancer diagnosis and treatments can have a profound impact upon women's well-being, body image, and sexual functioning, but less is known about the relational context of their coping and the impact upon their intimate partners. Our study focuses upon couples' experiences of breast cancer surgery, and its impact on body image and sexual intimacy.
METHOD: Utilizing a dyadic design, we conducted 8 semistructured individual interviews, with 4 long-term heterosexual couples, after the women had undergone mastectomy with reconstruction. Interviews explored both partners' experiences of diagnosis, decision-making, and experiences of body image and sexual intimacy. Interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA) was adopted; this is a qualitative research approach characterized by in-depth analysis of the personal meaning of experiences.
RESULTS: Findings illustrate the positive acceptance that partners may express toward their wives' postsurgical bodies. They illuminate ways in which gendered coping styles and normative sexual scripts may shape couples' negotiations of intimacy around "altered embodiment." Reciprocal communication styles were important for couples' coping. The management of expectations regarding breast reconstruction may also be helpful.
CONCLUSIONS: The insights from the dyadic, multiple perspective design suggest that psychologists must situate the meaning of supportive relationships and other protective factors in the context of complex life events and histories, in order to understand and support people's developing responses to distress.