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by Abigail Van Buren

DEAR ABBY: I just about flipped at the insensitivity of the husband who suggested that he and his wife -- a breast cancer survivor -- go to the nude beaches on the Riviera.

My story is similar. I've been happily married to a wonderful man for more than 31 years. I was diagnosed with breast cancer in 1997, followed by surgery (mastectomy), nine months of chemotherapy and reconstruction. I am the proud owner of a very real-looking implant breast and nipple.

The emotions and adjustments are sometimes overwhelming -- especially the hair loss and chemo. "Survivor" does NOT have a problem. She appears to be very positive in her attitude about the future, and very normal in her feelings about being uncomfortable topless. In fact, I'm sure this woman's concerns would strike a similar chord in the hearts and minds of every woman who has suffered through the battle with breast cancer.

I have been on the beach with a lot of topless European women. Most of them would look better with an attractive suit to cover them. -- A FAN IN CINCINNATI

DEAR FAN: I, too, was sure that the concerns of the "Survivor in San Francisco" would resonate with other breast cancer survivors. And that is why I tried to reassure her. I have a basket full of letters from readers who felt compelled to respond. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Until you have personally experienced all the challenges of breast cancer, self-image being one, you cannot fully understand all it encompasses.

To the woman whose husband of 21 years suggested visiting nude beaches together while vacationing in France, I say: "No, YOU don't have the problem -- your husband does. If your husband doesn't understand your reservations, both of you should talk to your physician."

By the way, Abby, since breast cancer occurs in both men and women, I wonder how her husband would feel if the tables were reversed. -- SURVIVOR IN LEHIGH VALLEY, PA.

DEAR SURVIVOR: I hesitate to say that either the husband or wife has a "problem." As I said in my answer, it's possible that the husband still regards his wife as a beautiful woman, and he no longer "sees" her mastectomy scars. Or, he could be so happy to still have her to love and to share a future with, her scars are not important to him. However, I'm printing your letter so "Survivor in S.F." will know others support her regardless of what she decides to do on her European vacation. Read on:

DEAR ABBY: Thank God I don't have to deal with a clod like her husband. He cannot be that stupid; it must be deliberate indifference to her feelings.

If her husband had a testicle missing, how do you think he would have reacted to her suggesting the same thing? Are you really so naive, Abby? Your answer left much to be desired. -- KELLY IN SANTA ANA, CALIF.

DEAR KELLY: I can't speak for the husband. However, I have it on good authority from one of my staff that when she visited a nude beach some years ago, while looking up from her book she happened to notice at eye level a man with only one testicle. As I stated in my answer, you see everything at nude beaches.

Not everyone reacted negatively to the idea of a breast cancer survivor visiting a nude beach. Some were wonderfully supportive. And that will be my column for tomorrow.

Abby shares her favorite recipes in two booklets: "Abby's Favorite Recipes" and "Abby's More Favorite Recipes." To order, send a business-sized, self-addressed envelope, plus check or money order for $3.95 per booklet ($4.50 each in Canada) to: Dear Abby Booklets, P.O. Box 447, Mount Morris, Ill. 61054-0447. (Postage is included in price.)

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