"Our control on the outer world is limited, temporary and often illusory."
As I lay in the dark, my mind reeling from the past events of the week, I rolled over and watched my husband sleeping fitfully. His breathing didn’t have the rhythmic inhale and exhale of someone in deep slumber, but rather that of one in the midst of a nightmare. The irony was, we really were in one. I had just been given a cancer diagnosis a few days prior. I reached out, across the pillow to softly touch his cheek and he woke with a start. He stared at me blurry eyed, then all of the sudden was wide awake. “Are you ok?” he asked concerned, wondering why I was still awake.
I nodded and told him I was as ok as I could be. I told him to go back to sleep and that I would be fine. He rolled over and I studied the back of his head. I tried to memorize everything about it. I wanted to stay in the peace and quiet of this moment forever. I thought to myself as I watched him drift back to sleep that this cancer diagnosis will either make us or break us. We’d already been through some hardships with the passing of his dad, getting let go from his job of 16 years, and most recently the emergency C-section I needed to have to bring our baby into the world. We had made it through all of those things, but this, this was big.
Is Love Enough?
A cancer diagnosis isn’t something anyone plans on, much less 3 ½ months after the birth of our baby. I knew we loved each other fiercely, but could not help wondering if love was going to be enough. I was determined to beat this cancer, and I prayed that our marriage would remain intact, stronger and better than before. All of the sudden, my husband found himself as primary caregiver to both Lily and me, and all his needs got put on the back burner. It happens that way with a new baby. Everyone checks in on the mom and the baby, but forgets about the dad, and now, people were even more concerned about me, pushing Cams even further down the list. I will say that he handled it amazingly well. Through all the uncertainty of surgery, treatment and recovery, he immersed himself into the caregiver role and took care of everything. He worked full time, took care of our baby when he got home so I could recover from the day’s treatments and sleep, and he would get up and do it all over again. It was brutal.
Meanwhile, my body tried to process the toxic assault of chemo and radiation, and it was all I could do to simply get through the day in order to get back to bed. Suffice it to say, being romantic during this time in our lives was not a high priority. It was all we could do to simply get through each day. It had been over a year, almost 2, since the last time we had been intimate. No doctors talk about this during treatment. There is no discussion about how your sex life will suffer due to surgeries, treatments and side effects from the various medications given to control side effects from everything.
We Felt Like Strangers
We felt like strangers to each other. Sure, we still loved one another, and were devoted to each other, but the intimacy part of our relationship that at one time was so vibrant, was now non-existent, though not for lack of wanting. It is difficult to bring up your sex life to your oncologist who treats cancer, nor did I feel like discussing it with my general practitioner. I instead just tried to fix it on my own, with less than stellar results. It is easy to mistake lack of desire with lack of interest. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to make love to my husband, it was that my body didn’t feel like it used to. I had gone through pregnancy, then had a c-section, found out I had cancer and had my lung removed. My body had been through hell. My body was foreign to me. I had lost over 100 lbs by the time everything was said and done, and to be frank, he felt like he would hurt me because I appeared so fragile.
Our first foray into intimacy was awkward to say the least. We both felt a little like strangers. I was nervous, he was nervous. One would think we were 16, not 37 and together for 8 years. Once we relaxed a little, and started laughing about it, it got easier. I’m not going to say it was mind blowing, but it was nice. It felt like we reconnected again. We weren’t just roommates anymore. I’d like to say it continued to get better, but that would be a lie. Intimacy takes work, and my body was not the same as it was. Through the years, we’ve had our ups and downs (pun intended). I still struggle with getting my body on board for sex. I finally discussed the issue with my OBGYN and her advice was to keep trying, keep talking about it to work through it, and use whatever is needed to make the process easier.
Cancer Robs You of So Much
I’ve talked to other patients and have learned that the subject of sex after treatment is rarely, if ever, discussed. A cancer diagnosis interrupts every detail in your life, and sex is a big part of it. Cancer robs one of so much, but the relationship shouldn’t have to suffer as well. It is no wonder so many couples get divorced after treatment. It takes dedication and a little stubbornness to address these issues and work through them. My husband and I are still working through them all these years later. I hope that practitioners get better at treating the whole person, rather than just the cancer, because it isn’t easy to do on your own. I’m hoping that by starting the conversation, others will speak up and things will change.
I was right all those years ago when I thought it would make or break us. I’m glad to say it DIDN’T break us. We have slowly found our way back as a couple, not just patient and caregiver, but husband and wife. I’m more dedicated and in love with him now than ever before. We’ve been through hell and back, and have weathered the storm…I am not giving up anytime soon.
| Wife | Courageous Mother | Mesothelioma Survivor | Starbucks addict | Lungleavin Day | Blogger | Mesothelioma Research Funding Advocate | Malignant Pleural Mesothelioma |
Heather was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma in 2005 at the age of 36. She received her diagnosis just after the birth of her first child, Lily.
In February 2006, she underwent extensive thoracic surgery, known as extrapleural pneumonectomy, with adjuvant intra-operative heated chemotherapy under the care of thoracic surgeon Dr. David J. Sugarbaker at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts. She was declared cancer-free later that year.
Recovery from this disease is clinically unique because malignant mesothelioma is a rare, aggressive cancer typically diagnosed in older patients that, even with treatment, has a 6 to 9 month median survival rate. Mesothelioma, commonly caused by exposure to asbestos, typically only manifests after a 25-30-year latency period following exposure.
Today Heather raises funds to benefit two nonprofits that are dedicated to mesothelioma research and asbestos education. The Mesothelioma Applied Research Foundation and The Asbestos Disease Awareness Organization.
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