West Valley Medical Center - October 13, 2015

Cancer surgery changes a woman inside and out. Nikki Wattier, RN, a nurse navigator at West Valley, has seen this time and again with her patients.

“I follow cancer patients throughout their journey, usually before they're even diagnosed,” she explains. “I usually get involved at the time of biopsy. Then, I follow them through finding out their results and getting scheduled with different doctors they'll need to see.”

“I also become a support person for the patient,” Nikki adds. And one thing that she sees many of the women struggle with is the physical impact of cancer surgery.

But there is good news: Many women come through their treatment journey including cancer surgery with a stronger sense of self.

How Cancer Changes the Definition of Womanhood

While there is a lot of truth in the saying, “It's what's on the inside that counts,” Nikki knows that people still value outward appearance.

Many women feel that certain physical characteristics set them apart and make them womanly. “Our hair, for example. A woman's hair is her crowning glory,” she says.

Nikki explains, “While patients are scared that they have a cancer diagnosis and they're very willing to have surgery to take steps toward being cancer-free they still feel like, I'm losing a part of my womanhood.'”

The physical transformation caused by breast cancer surgery can have a profound impact on women.

“This changes their well-being in general, being able to look in the mirror and still love themselves and their bodies,” Nikki says.

This can be especially tough for women who must have both a mastectomy breast removal surgery and chemotherapy treatment.

“Not only are they losing their breasts, but they're losing their hair at the same time,” Nikki says. “It can be a big blow to their identity.”

The Powerful Transformation Women Make After Cancer Surgery

Nikki says during the course of treatment, these women are more than just their physical appearance. “They see themselves differently. They don't see themselves for how good their hair looks, how big their breasts are, or how their clothes fit. It's something inside of them that makes them beautiful.”

She explains that watching them come to this realization is “really just amazing every single time. After they go through all of that and even while they go through it they find this inner strength and beauty. It just shows through their faces and through their eyes. They just shine.”

Many women do not realize they have this inner strength and confidence until they face a cancer diagnosis and go through treatment, says Nikki.

Many Women Who Undergo Cancer Surgery Come to a Valuable Realization: "I think they look back and realize, 'I'm more than my breasts and I'm more than my hair. My relationships are not based on those things. They're based on me, my strengths, my personality, and my ability to get through this and not let it get me down.'"

Source: Nikki Wattier, RN, Nurse Navigator

Why Some Women Struggle

But Nikki also knows that some women have a harder time than others coping with the physical changes caused by cancer surgery.

She says that some women lack much-needed support from family and friends. “Maybe her body was what attracted her husband to her, or her support system wasn't as solid as she had hoped it would be,” she explains.

This painful experience can open a woman's eyes in a different way.

“They get to see those relationships for what they really are, and big decisions are made,” Nikki says. “Unfortunately, I've seen some marriages end. There's nothing you can say to take away that disappointment.”

But she says that many women make it through. “They learn more about themselves. It is tough, but I think that in the long run, they're still stronger for it,” she adds.

The Importance of Support

Finding other sources of support can help women struggling with the physical and emotional impact of cancer surgery.

“There are support groups, swimming classes, and other activities that my patients have gotten involved in to be around other people in various stages of treatment,” says Nikki.

Seeing women in different stages of treatment and recovery can be reassuring. Nikki explains, “Patients have realized, My hair will grow back. And there are swimsuits that have prosthetics in them, so I can go swimming and look like everybody else.'”

She adds that some people really have a lot of fun with it. “I had a patient who got her prostheses and was taking pictures and doing all kinds of silly stuff. It's good to see them accepting that new part of themselves.”

West Valley Medical Center's Nurse Navigator Services can help you throughout your cancer journey.