There are a number of ways in which Stuart and I don’t fit the stereotypical roles of husband and wife, despite our traditional family structure and life. He’s a much better and more creative cook than I am. I handle all of our finances and investments, and he’s happy to not be bothered with it. He has more friends than I have, including several very close male friends with whom he shares his more intimate thoughts. And of the two of us, he tends to be more sensitive to the emotional climate of our home and marriage. Sometimes he can more accurately pinpoint what I’m thinking or feeling about a situation than I can! As we navigated my cancer treatment, he brought the gift of awareness – of himself, of me and of our relationship – to our situation, so I asked him what he would say if he were writing this paragraph. He responded that adversity has a way of either driving people apart or bringing them closer, and that we have a more intimate bond because our shared vulnerability brought us closer to each other. He was reminded of our wedding vows, especially the part where we promised to stay together “in sickness and in health,” and of the powerful influence of strong role models in his family and our church; other men who supported their wives through cancer treatment and other major illnesses.
Stuart once heard that divorce is the end result for two-thirds of the couples in which the wife undergoes breast cancer treatment, and that one of the reasons for the deterioration of the relationship was the loss of sexual interest from one or both partners. Either the husband stopped finding his wife attractive, or the wife stopped believing that she was desirable, even if her husband felt otherwise. I know of one breast cancer survivor who has given up dating after being rejected by a potential mate who could not accept the fact that one of her breasts was slightly misshapen due to a lumpectomy. Of course there are boyfriends and husbands out there who do not feel this way (mine is one of them), but breast cancer surgery and treatment have an impact on sexual self-perceptions and relationships, even very healthy ones. It’s beyond the scope of my story to uncover all of these issues, let alone respond to them, but I would at least like to share the experience that Stuart and I have had in this aspect of our relationship.
Much to my surprise, Stuart and I enjoyed sexual intimacy throughout my treatment. The fact that I had scars on my chest where breasts used to be and that I was bald did not keep either of us from wanting to have sex. At first, I would cover my head with a scarf and wear a tank top, but over time, we got used to how I looked and neither of us felt a need to do that. I focused on feeling attractive in other parts of my body; for example, I wore make-up every day and gave myself weekly pedicures. Cancer treatment heightened my desire to feel attractive and sexy in the ways that I could, and I enjoyed pampering myself. I learned that cancer treatment is like running a marathon, not a sprint. Through the long duration, there are more difficult periods and there are easier periods. Enjoying sex during the easier periods was an unexpected pleasure; it felt good to us both physically and emotionally.
Since my breast reconstruction has been finished and my health and lifestyle have settled into a new version of “normal,” Stuart and I continue to enjoy sex, although it’s a little different now and may always be that way. One thing that’s changed is that my energy level, although pretty high compared to most people my age, is not what it used to be. I get tired faster and run out of energy for lots of things, including sex sometimes. Of course, this comes with aging, whether you’ve had cancer or not. Any middle-aged, working professional with kids will tell you, if they are honest, that they are sometimes too tired for sex. But cancer seems to have accelerated the pace of this experience for me. A second change is that my reconstructed breasts (with silicone implants) look very nice and natural, but they don’t feel natural. They are uninvitingly firm to the touch for my husband, and to me, they feel mostly numb when they are touched. For couples for whom the woman’s breasts were a significant part of their sexual pleasure, there might be some disappointment in reconstructed breasts. It’s been relatively easy for us to enjoy other aspects of sex and touch apart from my breasts, though.
I’ve heard people say that what makes you sexy is simply your belief that you are, in fact, a sexy and desirable person. It has less to do with what your body looks like and more to do with your attitude about yourself, your partner and the experience and meaning of sex. Cancer has taught me the truth of this.