Cancer Wife

Friday, March 14, 2008

Question

My husband was recently diagnosed with cancer, and will be getting radiation and chemotherapy. I have some concerns about our love life during his treatment. His oncologist was not very helpful when I tried to bring this up. I would like to know if it will be safe for me to have relations with my husband. I don't want to stop making love—I think this would be bad for both of us. But the doctor seemed shocked that I would ask about sex "at a time like this" and told us that people getting these treatments feel too exhausted and nauseous to have any libido.

We've been married for almost ten years, and we don't use any kind of protection, since neither one of us likes it. We wouldn't mind having a child, but after this long, we feel that this is probably not going to happen, and we are content with that if it's God's will for us. Thank you if you can help me.

Answer

I'm shocked that your doctor would put you off with such a vague and unscientific answer. Most medical authorities would agree that it's not good for the morale of people with any serious illness to be abandoned by their partners. Your husband may or may not have much of a libido during chemotherapy and radiation. Take that one day at a time. Depending on what drugs he is given, he may feel poorly for a few days after treatment and then rally. At any rate, he will feel much worse if he doesn't have the comfort of your touch, and he'll feel emasculated if he ceases to give and receive sexual pleasure from you. Let's keep the marital bond as strong as possible during this crisis.

I spoke with a nurse who has many years of experience treating cancer patients and administering chemotherapy. She confirmed that the radiation is of no danger to you. His body will not be emitting harmful radiation after treatment. Every chemotherapy drug is different, but most will clear his system 48-72 hours after he's received them. Using a condom would protect you from any medication he might be shedding right after dosing. If the doctor is not helpful, you might feel more comfortable with (and get better information from) the nurse who handles his chemo.

I firmly believe that all human touch (material, paternal, romantic, nonsexual, erotic, etc.) has healing power, especially if that intention is behind it. And even if I am just full of New Age sunshine-up-my-bum, so what? He'll have enough pain and discomfort to endure; let there be as much relaxation, comfort, and intimacy as the two of you can arrange to enjoy. If he feels too tired for intercourse, don't neglect the options of manual and oral stimulation. Come to think of it—you may have religious scruples about this. Stupid me. But I have to be honest about my own spiritual conviction. If there is a loving creator, surely s/he wouldn't judge the two of you for expressing your love and desire for one another? Doesn't your God have compassion for the sick and a blessing for keeping your marital love strong? I hope so.

If the hospital offers any kind of support group for partners, please take advantage of it. If not, get on-line and see what you can find there. Remaining loving allies who can talk about your hopes and fears is very important to keep your marriage healthy. But there are going to be some things that you don't want to bring up with your husband. This is especially true if his cancer is potentially life-threatening. Other spouses can understand your experience in a way that even he probably cannot.

If you belong to a church or any kind of spiritual network, don't be shy about asking people to pray for your husband and for you. I keep hearing that people who receive prayers heal faster than people who don't. That may be an urban legend, but it could also be stark, raving truth. What can it hurt to let your friends and family know that you need some extra emotional support (and help with housework) at this time? Sometimes what you might need most is to not talk about cancer—go see a movie or do something else frivolous. Buy yourself a few inexpensive gifts from time to time; read books or watch DVDs that are absorbing but recreational; pay attention to beautiful things; give yourself permission to prioritize and focus on what is really important N-O-W.

Feel free to write to me if you want to keep me posted about how things are going. You have my warmest best wishes. If my pagan prayers are welcome, you have those, too.