“It was as if the burning fires of our pre-cancer days had been completely extinguished. There weren't even smoldering embers left.”
“Tell me something I can't forget,” he whispered into my ear. The words were unexpected, and I wasn't quite sure how to respond. After thinking for a few minutes, I could think of only one thing to say to my sweet husband, “I have cancer.” His startled look made me want to cry.
Leaning in, I wiped the escaped tear from his cheek. “Are they sure,” he asked. I nodded and said, "Yes."
Our unspoken broken had begun. From that day forward, things rapidly changed. Our once very physical relationship suddenly turned cold. I was in shock. Weeks earlier, I'd faced one of the most difficult challenges of my life and now, the man I loved was rejecting me.
I began to rethink my decision not to have reconstructive surgery. After having both breasts removed due to invasive ductal carcinoma, I wondered if I should've made the choice to have new breasts constructed from body fat. We'd talked about it and had agreed the decision was mine to make. He said he’d support whatever I decided to do. But apparently, that wasn't completely true.
Each time I tried to discuss our lack of physical intimacy, he disengaged. “We don't have a problem,” he would say. Or he’d respond with, “We still love each other.” And we did. We did still love each other, but things were vastly different since my diagnosis.
Month after month, I tried to find ways of approaching the subject, but the chasm of brokenness grew larger. I internalized my feelings and so did he. We were both hurting and didn't know how to fix the problem.
Cancer had drastically changed our relationship.
Both in our sixties with no other health issues, we should have been able to enjoy a healthy sexual relationship, but that hadn't been the case. We barely touched anymore. Every now and then, we'd give each other a kiss or a hug in passing but nothing more. It was as if the burning fires of our pre-cancer days had been completely extinguished. There weren't even smoldering embers left.
It's been almost five years since we've been physically intimate. My heart hurts for what's been lost. And although he's never said so, I believe he's hurting, too.
Speaking about the unspoken broken is difficult, but my hope is, in sharing my story, that someone else might feel less alone. I'm sure there are others out there struggling with the same types of problems.
A sexual relationship can certainly be affected by health issues. Cancer is just one of many diseases that can affect intimacy. So how do we, as patients, survivors, and partners, face the challenges associated with these health-related changes?
In our case, we've decided to accept our brokenness and allow the difficulties a place in our lives. For many, that would be an unacceptable solution. Each person facing cancer must decide how to deal with these types of challenges. For some, counseling might offer acceptable results. For others, a different course of action may be preferred.
Breast cancer doesn't come with rules or guidelines. For those like my husband and I, we figure it out as we go. Sometimes we make wise decisions and sometimes we don't. Most of the time, we wing it.
Unnecessary suffering doesn't have to be part of a person's life. Talk to your doctor and ask for help instead of struggling with the unspoken broken like we have.
Sexual intimacy is part of a healthy relationship, but it isn't the whole. Some relationships can thrive despite the lack of physical intimacy.
And, I still cling to the hope that with love, all things are possible.