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Success and Intimacy After Prostate Cancer

A Woman’s Perspective

by Marlys Johnson

Prostate Cancer Image

Gary and Marlys Johnson

My husband, Gary, tells me that men tend to measure their level of success by their jobs, their possessions, and their sexual performance. Men are so shallow. Sigh.

Lost Intimacy
Gary was the data processing manager of a company that sold out to a competitor. He had never been without a good job – had even been courted by headhunters – so we weren’t concerned.

Time passes. Gary dumbs down his résumé. We sell our home and cash out our 401(k). Two years later, he gets a job that pays a fraction of his previous salary. Shortly afterward, his doctor phones: “You have prostate cancer.”

During surgery, tests determine that the cancer has spread to the lymph nodes. Hormone therapy is prescribed. With it come menopausal symptoms – hot flashes, depression, softened muscles, loss of libido – all the things that threaten a man’s maleness.

Gary withdraws. I’m prepared for his lack of interest in sex, but I’m not prepared for what feels like a lack of interest in me.

Not wanting to add to his load, I keep my thoughts to myself. This is just how it is, I reason as I silently grieve the loss of something very precious.

A woman isn’t necessarily looking for a high-level sexual performance; she wants to be romanced and pursued by the man she loves.

For the first time in my husband’s life, the external factors that define success for a man are lost – a rewarding job, the ability to provide nice things for his family, confidence in his sexual performance.

Turning Point
Gary’s doctor promises a break from hormone therapy provided his PSA numbers stay down. The count drops from 44 to 0.90. Two years later, though, it starts an upward trend.

It is a turning point. For the first time, Gary expresses his fears about our financial affairs, about what will happen to me after he’s gone, and how distressing it is to lose his sexual desire. He sends me an email one evening:

There are times I want to talk more, but I know as soon as I say something I’ll start crying.

It seems to bother me more when I see successful people and they talk about their jobs, houses, and vacations. It’s not that I want what they have. It just causes me to feel that I have failed, and that I have brought you down with me.

Female Perspective
When Gary admits his insecurities, it frees me up to share my feelings over the loss of intimacy. A woman isn’t necessarily looking for a high-level sexual performance; she wants to be romanced and pursued by the man she loves.

Romance translates into a hundred thoughtful little things: suggest a date out, flirt with me, pretend you like chick flicks. Let me know you still want me on all levels – as your wife, your best friend, your teammate.

Gary voices a concern that I might compare him in the declining stages of cancer to the successful men I see at work. He fears that I might not want to care for him if he becomes a sick, grumpy husband. “I need your heart to belong to me until the end,” he says.

I cry. This is the man who has loved and provided for me and our children and has kept me laughing all these years. He is the most successful man I know. His character and work ethic are stellar. Our kids have the highest respect for him. Our grandchildren adore him. Most women would give their right arm for this man. (Sorry, girls; he’s taken.)

Knowing that communication is critical to any relationship, I resolve to not keep things to myself. And Gary, who has always been the strong, silent type, admits that the more he talks about cancer, the easier it is to discuss the issues associated with this disease. While I’ve always appreciated his strength, I love this new vulnerability.

As for my heart, it isn’t going anywhere.

♦ ♦ ♦ ♦ ♦

Gary and Marlys Johnson established Cancer Adventures, a nonprofit with a message of proactive survivorship. Marlys published the book Cancer Adventures: Turning loss into triumph, a collection of stories about survivors and caregivers who are giving back, and writes a tongue-in-cheek blog at The Johnsons enjoy hiking and snowshoeing in the Cascade Mountains near their home in Bend, OR, and Gary continues to do well on maintenance therapy more than six years after diagnosis.

This article was published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, September/October 2011.