Acknowledging Loss

CURE, Summer 2010, Volume 9, Issue 2

Prostate cancer survivor says acknowledging the loss of his sexuality is the first step toward getting it back.

Eight weeks after prostate cancer surgery, I still couldn't get an erection. Before surgery, my doctors said it would take time for sexual functioning to return—but eight weeks?

You don’t understand how difficult it is to not be able to express yourself sexually until it happens. For me it was like waking up after having a limb amputated, but still feeling it. No matter the kind of cancer or treatment, the disease leaves you forever changed. Some aspect of yourself and the way you once functioned must go.

It requires adjustment, a rebuilding of perspective, a reordering of priority, a change in behavior or way of being. It requires a shift—for some, simple and inconsequential, and for others, multilayered and quite challenging. But for all, the process of healing and reintegration requires attention, honor, and grace.

I was expected to go quietly into the night, pop Viagra, and hope that one day things would get better. Yes, I was grateful the tumor was gone. But I was also traumatized and aware of a deep loss. I was now different, changed. It was a loss to my body, a loss of control, a loss of self-image, a blow to my self-esteem, and I had no idea how long it would last.

Doctors want the most positive medical outcome, which is good. But how can we be expected to quickly move on—to grab our catheters and dash out the door as if nothing has happened.

Our culture discourages the full recognition of loss; it devalues grieving. We are expected to look on the bright side, never to sit in the disquiet of loss or wrestle with the reality of our own brokenness.

Without the opportunity to grieve, it’s not possible to heal. We cannot wake up from a pharmacological stupor and pretend that life goes on exactly as it did. We can’t stumble through recovery with our eyes fixed on the possibility of a better tomorrow without somehow acknowledging the agony of today.

We owe it to ourselves to understand the depths of our change and to find ways to honor it. If we don’t, we run the risk of losing much more when we fail to recognize new beginnings or miss the wisdom gained when things fall apart.

I was broken, but no one wanted to talk about it. Friends were dismissive about my fear of impotency and attempted to assure me that my relationship was so secure that my partner and I would quickly rise above the absence of sex.

“In the scheme of things,” they said, “not being able to have sex doesn’t really matter.” That’s easy for them to say.

It took a year for me to return to presurgical functioning. It took patience, faith, creativity, and the love of a partner who reminded me that I was more than my body and that our relationship was more than sex.

I have come to realize that the healing of body, mind, and spirit requires the whole truth. We can’t heal if we diminish the significance of our bodies to ourselves and our partners—or if we diminish the place sexual intimacy has in our lives.

—Michael E. Reid is a two-year prostate cancer survivor who lives in Monterey, California.