How to Be a Man after Prostate Cancer
by Rabbi Ed Weinsberg, EdD, DD
After his prostate surgery, John lost his ability and desire to have sex with his wife, Linda. She was distraught when he literally turned his back on her. She wondered if John was deliberately trying to sabotage their relationship, as well as harming himself, by disregarding the penile rehabilitation his doctor advised.
It is heartbreaking when we men frustrate our wives or partners by failing to communicate our feelings or refusing to seek help after prostate cancer treatment. It is particularly unsettling, though understandable, that we often don’t convey our innermost thoughts when we feel our manhood has been diminished. This happens all too frequently in the wake of prostate cancer treatment side effects like losing sexual potency or desire.
Men who’ve been through surgery, radiation, or other prostate cancer treatments tend to view erectile dysfunction with great dismay. It’s a tall order to overcome our angst after years of linking our masculinity to our sexual functioning. This concern is deeply ingrained, given many men’s lifelong narrow understanding of what it is to be a man.
Revising Our Views About Masculinity
Part of being a man is becoming aware of what goes on around and inside us. In addition, manhood demands mature action, such as deciding to revise our attitudes and outlooks and act accordingly. How else can we renew our relationships with our significant others?
It’s a tall order to overcome our angst after years of linking our masculinity to our sexual functioning.
Conversely, it’s childish, not “manly,” when we attempt to evade our “altered” circumstances due to surgical trauma or biochemical castration. Escapism may seem easier in view of genuine emotional and spiritual pain, but it is ultimately self-defeating. Why? Because it leaves a man with ED feeling, well … impotent. Redefining our masculinity is therefore the first order of business for survivors who have endured prostate cancer treatment side effects.
Turning to Medical Therapy
Men can offset the masculinity they feel they’ve forfeited by turning to medical technology. Those who sense they are sexually MIA (missing in action) can take definitive action by asking their doctors for Viagra, Cialis, or Levitra, as we’re reminded in ubiquitous TV ads. Vacuum erection devices, which work for many men with ED, and MUSE penile suppositories or alprostadil injections can also help men “get it up.”
Because such medical approaches are not right for everyone, some men opt for internal penile pumps. These instantly inflatable devices may be helpful in restoring men’s deflated egos. It is not much different for many women who feel breast implants help restore their femininity after breast cancer treatment.
Learning to Communicate
Enhancing sexual intimacy requires more than mechanics and synthetic hormones. It’s just as important for men and their partners to sharpen their relationship skills by learning to communicate openly about their shared sexual needs. For that reason, in January 2007, after some erectile difficulties even preceding my surgery, my wife and I visited a sex therapist. She spoke with us about exploring specific avenues for increased intimacy and reminded us that sex begins in the mind.
For me, sex therapy was not just about acquiring techniques for “getting it on” as much as it was about learning to reframe what sexual intimacy is all about. Months later, I fully grasped that making love – not just “having sex” through coitus – can be prolonged through sensate focus. We rediscovered the mutual joy of physical sensations in response to touching, seeing, smelling, kissing, and simply cuddling. In that regard, foreplay became “coreplay.”
To become “real men,” we need to make use of medical technology as needed. But we also need to learn to communicate openly with our partners. Taking such action will reinforce our masculinity while meeting the needs of those we love.
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Ed Weinsberg, an ordained rabbi with a doctorate in gerontology, is a prostate cancer survivor, patient healthcare educator, intimacy coach, public speaker, and author of Conquer Prostate Cancer: How Medicine, Faith, Love and Sex Can Renew Your Life. He provides tips on coping with prostate cancer through his website ConquerProstateCancer.com.
This article was originally published in Coping® with Cancer magazine, July/August 2011.