A Couple's Cancer

For one side effect of prostate cancer treatment, it takes both the patient and the partner to overcome it.

If you or your partner has had prostate cancer, you're probably aware that it's not only a man's problem; it also has an impact on spouses. And in some cases, one side effect of treatment may take both the patient and the partner to overcome it.

Men’s prostate problems often become the concern of women, as they tend to be the family’s caregivers and gatekeepers. A recent survey suggests that women are the ones to push their husbands and other men in their lives to go to the doctor. This may be particularly true for prostate cancer exams or treatment.

My wife, Yvonne, was incredibly affected by my prostate cancer after it was confirmed in January 2007. I had a biopsy Gleason score of 6—a moderately aggressive cancer. As with 80 percent of the nearly 200,000 men diagnosed in 2009 with prostate cancers in the U.S., my cancer was localized and did not go beyond the prostate itself. Still, we realized this was a life-altering event for both of us. 

I was a bit surprised, but not startled, when I learned I had prostate cancer. If anything, I felt a bit relieved that now I knew the reason for the discomfort I had experienced during previous months. Yvonne, though, was shocked.

That night, we hugged as she cried on my shoulder. Like many other cancer patients, I found myself consoling her, although I felt I was the one in trouble. Sobbing, she recalled the 30 years of our married life when I, as a congregational rabbi, had visited and counseled many people with cancer. “But, in all those years I never even contemplated that ‘the big C’ would invade our own household,” she said.

After my robotic surgery to remove my cancerous prostate in April 2007, I was fortunate that the nerve bundles adjacent to the prostate were spared. This allowed for the possibility of renewed sexual functioning and renewed continence reinforced by the sphincter muscles. The likelihood of erectile dysfunction is lowered if doctors avoid cutting these nerves. However, age also plays a role. Men under 50 have a good chance of having their function fully restored, but for men above 70, there’s a greater chance it may not return to 100 percent.

Even so, erectile dysfunction—defined as the incapacity to have a spontaneous erection sufficient for penetration—is one of several adverse treatment after-effects for most surgery patients and those undergoing radiation. I was no exception. In my case, my erectile dysfunction was complicated by diabetes, neuropathy, and certain medications which “put a lid on my damper.” Yet like most men, I successfully offset my erectile dysfunction with medications like Viagra or by using a vacuum erection device. Others have successfully taken Cialis (tadalafil) or Levitra (vardenafil) pills to become firm, or used non-oral medications, such as Caverject (alprostadil) or MUSE pellets (both are drugs that widen blood vessels in the penis, allowing for a stronger erection). However, like other medications, they do cause side effects. Penile implant surgery has also been an option for many men.

Talk about this article with other patients, caregivers, and advocates in the Prostate Cancer CURE discussion group.
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