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Battling fear after cancer

Husband’s lack of intimacy may be a result of more than just wife’s physical loss

By Meredith Goldstein
Globe Staff / October 30, 2010

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Q. I’ve been married for almost 10 years. Right after we were married, I was diagnosed with breast cancer. I was in my 30s and was devastated. After multiple surgeries (including a mastectomy), chemo, and radiation, we started to build our married life. We were blessed to have two beautiful children. After my second child, my remaining breast started showing signs of potential breast cancer. Over the next year, I had two biopsies and multiple mammograms. Emotionally this tipped me over the edge, and I had the remaining breast removed.

My issue? Since my last surgery three years ago, my husband refuses to have “marital’’ relations with me. No touching. No nothing. I mean nothing! A peck in the morning to say goodbye and a peck in the evening to say good night. A few “I love you’s’’ throughout the day. I understand for men breasts are very important. I miss them also. I’ve tried to approach the topic, and his response is, “We need to schedule a time.’’ Well, with two children, it’s difficult to schedule a time. Counseling? He owns his own business and works seven days a week. He feels he doesn’t have time to go. And no, he isn’t cheating on me.

I love my husband, but I can’t remain in a nonphysical marriage. It’s lonely. He knows I’m not happy but he feels that the marriage is OK. Well, it’s not. I hate ultimatums, but I don’t know what else do to.

BREASTLESS IN MASSACHUSETTS

A. This isn’t about his busy schedule, and it’s not about your breasts. It’s about the whole ordeal.

When someone gets cancer, their family and friends become a full-time support group. And when it’s over, there’s this massive sigh of relief and everyone tries to go back to their normal lives as best they can.

That’s fine, except for the fact that the main caregivers are still emotionally exhausted. They’ve used up all of their energy to help their loved ones (and themselves) get through the experience. No matter what, they’re panicked that the illness will return.

There’s a lot of literature out there about sex after cancer — that caregiver spouses are afraid of accidentally hurting their partner physically by taking part in sexual activity, or worse, hurting their partner’s feelings if they have a negative reaction to their new body. That could be a part of his problem: fear.

There’s less literature that adequately describes the emotional crash that happens after years of compartmentalizing a very scary thing. Having cancer is lonely and scary and weird. So is helping someone with cancer. You’ve asked him for support for years, and now you’re asking for something else. He’s having trouble understanding that this request is supposed to be a fun one.

I’d start slow — with cuddling. Sit close to him in front of the television or offer up a back rub. See if you can move it along from there.

No matter how he responds, he has to make time for therapy — probably without you. You can tell him that a lack of interest in sex after cancer is normal — and fixable. He’ll probably be relieved to hear that he’s not a horrible jerk for wanting to avoid it all after all that you’ve been through.

And maybe plan a vacation. The more new memories you make that don’t involve waiting for the results of a PET scan, the better it will be for both of you.

MEREDITH

Readers respond:

I think that Mere is right that he needs to go to counseling, with or without you. And a support group for spouses of cancer patients might also be an eye-opening experience for him, to see that what you two are going through is normal. BLUEDAISY1

I would not be so sure that he is not having an affair. Men just do not go without sex for three years. Men are also very visual. You say that you miss your breasts too, which has me wondering what you have done in terms of reconstructive surgery. BOSTONBREEZE

I’ll go out on a limb and say that, if other aspects of the marriage are OK, he may be scared to death of losing you, of investing too much emotion and intimacy only to lose it all. BOBL-FF

I think sometimes it’s harder being the healthy one, in situations like this.

MCBOSTONROB

Edited and reprinted from www.boston.com/loveletters. Meredith Goldstein can be reached at mgoldstein@globe.com. She chats online Wednesday at 1 p.m.