By Ralph Blum
When your partner is diagnosed with prostate cancer you will undoubtedly experience a tidal wave of emotions, including the devastating fear that he might die. At the same time as you are trying to get a hold on your own fears, you also want to support and reassure your partner—who is struggling with the same shock and fear. It’s a tough act to balance, and it’s only too easy to repress or ignore your own feelings and needs.
Often, it seems, men are more intimidated by health problems than women are, and when your partner is first diagnosed with prostate cancer you may find that it is up to you to ask the important questions in the doctor’s office while your partner sits there in apparent—usually temporary--shock. Moreover most men are conditioned not to talk about their fears and anxieties, and you may fall into the trap of struggling to remain upbeat, of hiding your own fears from him. While it is helpful to be as positive as you can, it is equally helpful to encourage him to express his feelings, and to talk openly together about his concerns that the cancer treatment is going to affect your relationship. One of his main fears will be of becoming impotent. It is not easy for men to understand that there is more to intimacy than erections.
There are many ways in which you can help your partner, in addition to giving him your love and support as he decides on his best treatment option. You can help him by learning everything you can about the disease and the various treatments so that you can discuss with him the sensitive issues and side effects involved. You can help him with other choices, such as choosing which doctor will perform his treatment. And you can help by driving him to treatments, picking up his medications at the pharmacy, and by keeping track of all his test results, x-rays and medical records, so that if the need arises to consult another doctor, he will have everything ready to take with him.
However, it is vital that you not neglect your own health (which it’s very easy to do!) or give up your own life and center everything around your partner and the cancer. Above all, take time out from thinking about the disease. Go out to dinner and to movies with your partner. Take weekends off and travel to favorite haunts. Enjoy, as much as possible the activities you have always liked to share. Indeed, the vow is “In sickness and in health.” But refuse to permit your whole live be held hostage to this condition.
It would be presumptuous of me to even attempt to address the real loneliness and frustration women feel from the lack of sex. My partner, Jeanne, however, is fierce on the subject.
“The women at the PCRI Conference all complained about it,” she told me. “But they feel they cannot reveal their feelings to a husband who is, I quote, ‘dealing with cancer, for God’s sake!’
When I asked Jeanne what she’d want to tell men, she said, “Curl up and just snuggle. No attempt at sex. Just relax. Hold each other, and listen as you begin to breath together. Try spooning. Meaning, lie curled up tummy to back. It’s called ‘the Embrace Meditation. . .’ There, that’s a start.”
I asked her, “Anything else you’d want to say to all the partners?”
“Yes. Let him know that helping him will actually help you to feel better, more confident, even more safe.”
As I was writing this, I remembered something that really helped me, something Jeanne told me right at the beginning, when I was first diagnosed, “Here’s what I feel,” she said. “We both have prostate cancer. We’re in this together.”
About Ralph Blum (1932-2016):
Ralph H. Blum was a cultural anthropologist and author, graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University with a degree in Russian Studies. His reporting from the Soviet Union, the first of its kind for The New Yorker (1961—1965), included two three-part series on Russian cultural life. He wrote for various magazines, among them Reader’s Digest, Cosmopolitan, and Vogue. Blum has published three novels and five nonfiction books. He lived with prostate cancer, without radical intervention, for twenty years.