Cancer and Intimacy: How to maintain life in a healthy relationship when you’re not healthy

I contend, against what some might disagree with, that the fundamental rules of the road still apply to relationships even after a cancer diagnosis. Mind you, special circumstances arise like depression for either partner, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder for the patient, anxiety, survivors guilt (if you’re not stage four), and an inability to partake in sexual activities as you once enjoyed. This is true especially if you’re undergoing treatments like chemotherapy or radiation, and during healing from surgeries.

The endless list of caveats, not excuses, swirls around the bedroom like the static electricity before a storm – it’s invisible but we can all feel its effects. Sex in the time of metastatic breast cancer can leave women feeling awkward, shy, unattractive… In some cases sex can pose a medical danger due to the suppression of the immune system by treatments. The act of intercourse or the insertion of (fill in the blank) can tear a very delicate vaginal lining allowing bacteria to enter the blood stream. I’ll leave it here for you to draw your own logical conclusions.

A host of various challenges beyond physical intimacy can create a hurricane gale force wind of yelling in the living room, too. Not to mention the generally debilitating fatigue and insomnia causing scheduling mishaps. Financial burdens cause cancellations of plans and much needed vacations that must wait, or in some cases never ever come to fruition.

Those two examples, complex and full of emotional heaviness, are just a few in a list of “collateral damages” as Dr. Susan Love refers to all the plights caused by gynecological cancers . But cancer doesn’t have to pull up the roots of a strong relationship, nor does it effect the ability to execute on the basic blocking and tackling of keeping love alive in every couple’s relationship playbook. I keep a laundry list of things in my mind that I know require my attention to protect whatever got us together and keeps us together.

We like to believe cancer changes certain aspects of our personalities, generally for the better. We also must differentiate between chemo brain when applicable, fatigue juxtaposed against raw intelligence, common sense, and kindness. If we were jerks prior to cancer, chances are we are nicer but still jerks after cancer. Irrespective of side effects, cancer probably cannot make you a complete idiot either sans a few IQ points from whole brain radiation, god forbid, either.

For example, there’s no excuse for not keeping the anger and hostility in check in lashing out at your mate. That’s a stupid use of your cancer card. A mate who didn’t ask for the role of caregiver and primary earner, if these weren’t your beloved’s role as it probably became on the day you got handed your cancer card and membership in a club you never wanted to belong in the first place.

I try to live by how I wish to be treated, though god knows it’s not always possible. On the days when I find myself in a bad mood I stow myself away with apologies in advance, or if I’m up for it I vacate the premises for a while. Generally speaking, as was in life before cancer leaving for a spell makes the heart grow fonder and stupid arguments forgiven if you can even recall what the tiff was about in the first place. A short term memory lapse may be indeed be the single upside due to chemo brain when it comes to silly arguments. A nice thought anyway.

Yet, cancer can tear apart even the most stable of relationships. That is prior to diagnosis. In my own case, the C’s depression nearly did us in but I’m not the kind of person to cut and run when the chips are down. And he’s been better for a couple of months now and I’m certain I made the right decision, although it was difficult at times to do the right thing.

Reversal of Fortune

Many people disagreed with my reversal of caregiver duties. I’d been advised he should be taking care of me. I thought long and hard about it and I found a very counterintuitive conclusion: my mind was not on my cancer and by defocusing my energy from thinking about my own illness, I didn’t succumb to self pity. The pity party never got started, and as we do not know how long I had cancer before my stage four diagnosis, it’s been at least six years very likely I’ve been walking around with breast cancer.

Prior to four years ago, the C had a very high stress job at the worlds most prestigious and popular company as a senior scientist. For 10 years I played a key role in keeping him and my stepsons healthy and happy while holding my own in a career that ended the day cancer began. He’s still supporting me with a home, an automobile, money when I absolutely need it, etc., and for lack of some of those kinds of stressors I’m very, very lucky. And I know it, and now that the big D (depression) has ended he doesn’t ever think to bring this up as a point of contention. During the big D, C resented me having to rely on him. For now, we are past the big D, and we are getting along better than ever. With caution and the proper medications, that is.

Ilene’s golden rules of a peaceful relationship

The following comprise a list of free, no-cost high value things you can do to strengthen your relationship at a time when many fall apart for various reasons and whose fault can be either person.

So try as I can, I:
Listen
Acknowledge
Apologize
Laugh
Forget it
Forgive it
Hug and kiss
Trust
Laugh
Be a best friend
Laugh
Hug some more

The Underminers

One little bit of smack talk is treacherous to a marriage. One little bit of love right now – even a knowing look of “it’s me, don’t worry I got you,” will play in Peoria every night. There’s some very basic things my 53+ years have provided me through experiences in my understanding of men, helping me find a peaceful way to travel from Venus to greet my martian and meet him half way.

A few good general lessons make sense whether cancer invaded or not:
Don’t ask “what are you thinking sweetheart.” He’s not thinking about anything. Really.
Change yourself, not him. Help him be a better him, with augmentations like a shirt he’d buy himself. If he needs you to help out, he will ask what to do eventually.
Those two round things in a bag in his pants are his to enjoy . Let him keep them. He has to protect them to protect you and that’s his job because we aren’t that evolved as a species yet.
This keeps me out of the cool feminist refrigerator but I couldn’t care less.
You do look fat in that dress/ skirt/ shorts/ jeans so don’t ask him to take the beating for it.
If you don’t have your own interests get cracking or crafting and pursue them outside of one another and outside of work. Life’s not dull, the same memories replayed and infinitum, are.
Privacy is an indelible right for anyone so do not go through anything of his ever. Never ever. Not a cell phone, not email, not the glove box of his car.
If you don’t leave for that place you intended to chances are you probably,y never will, either. Fun must become part of your routine both together and apart.

We will survive

Without the few aforementioned best practices, a couple won’t develop the foundations for a future and for love to find a higher ground above any kind if illness. You can call me a romantic because I am. And I brought breakfast in bed to him 90% of the days we’ve been together. I also follow my own advice. I didn’t fail, but yet for a marriage go on while starving it of love one may lose their life as well from the stress level brought on by a breakup. Know that to go on whatever path or direction your lives may take together, remember to be BFFs first because everything else will follow in the footsteps of your good choices…

The forest of cancer and the trees of love
… even in the wildest winds there will be one last twisting deciduous leaf on a fragile white fir branch way in the back of the shallow foothills. If it’s alive you’ll find it. The leaf reminds us in the forest there’s a tree with hope of life clinging to it as we must cling to one another even in the harshest storms. As the tree seems reborn in the springtime, love can withstand wintertime, too.

Tell me what you think.

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