Talking about sex with a partner who has Stage 4 cancer...
December 16, 2015 1:51 AM   Subscribe

I really need some advice on how to talk with my partner and address her questions about our sex life (or lack of it) as not only do we have a two-year old but my partner is also undergoing treatment for cancer. Help, please...

About five years ago I got together with the woman of my dreams; we were friends for decades, worked together for years and know each other really well - but neither of us thought we had a chance with the other until it happened - and it was truly blissful. A couple of years ago we had a baby girl too, and our family is the best thing we've ever done. We're very much in love, and that's awesome.

But this summer though my partner was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer which has spread to her liver and bones. We were -and still are - devastated, but at least she's responded well to chemo and is undergoing radiotherapy at the moment, obviously she's utterly tired (although still going to work as I do the full-time babycare). We're trying to stay positive and take life a day at a time and we're planning our wedding for next year too.

Last night though she was weeping in bed as she said she was worried I might think she didn't love me any more because of her lack of interest in sex. I don't think that - although it is hugely frustrating to me - as it seems that as she still feels angry at and betrayed by her own body it's entirely natural she withdraws from physical expressions of love; partially because she's so tired but also because it just isn't something she can (or wants to) cope with.

So when she asks me how do I talk about my frustration (and sometimes fears, because it does get to me) without making her feel worse, or sounding whiny, entitled, guilt-trippy or bullying, none of which I want at all? My head *and* heart know we have very, very good reasons for not having made love much at all in the past couple of years but I do miss the intimacy, touching and the fun we had before our beautiful baby - so when she asks, what do I say?

A couple of times in the past few months she's asked for a little relief with a vibrator and then slept straight away afterwards; she's apologised for 'being selfish' (and of course it's frustrating but OK as she's obviously exhausted) meaning I end up masturbating daily and then feeling a little sad and lonely because of it - so oddly her being upset last night seemed a step forward as it she's not very good at initiating or talking about intimacy.

I know that lives (and sex lives) change with children, that was part of the deal we made when we talked about having a baby - and that cancer and its treatment changes lives, relationships and people even more.

My priority is looking after her and helping as much as I can, so if you've been through this - how did you cope? I want to be the best partner, lover and friend (and dad) I can be but I also promised her I'd be open and honest and I really need to find a way to deal with my own head sometimes...

And thank you in advance, what ever your reply is.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (22 answers total) 8 users marked this as a favorite

My husband and I have had our sex life impacted by our high risk pregnancies, babies, and low testosterone (so for us the lack of sex isn't just one sided) but we just get on with things, and we still flirt and cuddle and kiss and stroke each other in passing.... Then when we get past a bad patch, it still feels natural to try and have sex because we never stopped reaching out, even if it wouldn't lead to intercourse. Maybe that kind of arrangement would work for you?
posted by flink at 2:30 AM on December 16, 2015 [4 favorites]

Please don't stop having intimacy, touching and fun just because you're not having sex right now. You can have these things without any sex happening. Touching is so important and it's a great way to express love and intimacy.
If your relationship has been lacking in touch and intimacy, it sounds like it's time to find new ways to have those things. Can you cuddle and kiss more, maybe shower together, give massages? Is she open to holding you while you masturbate, making it more into something you're experiencing together?

When she asks, you can surely tell her there are things that you miss, and that you want to find new ways to enjoy being together. Maybe she has ideas about this, too. Maybe tell her that you want to be close to her because you love her, not because you want to get off.
posted by Too-Ticky at 2:44 AM on December 16, 2015 [7 favorites]

Your priority is looking after her well-being. I hate to sound harsh but your wife might actually be dying. Don't make your frustration about the lack of sex be one more thing she has to worry about. I think right now it's kindest to avoid burdening her with this and pretend all is fine if she brings it up again. Therapy for you might be a good outlet where you can discuss your own feelings and sort your head out. When your wife finishes treatment and is in full remission, that's the time discuss improvements to your sex life together.
posted by emd3737 at 3:43 AM on December 16, 2015 [68 favorites]

So when she asks me how do I talk about my frustration (and sometimes fears, because it does get to me) without making her feel worse, or sounding whiny, entitled, guilt-trippy or bullying, none of which I want at all?

Absolutely do not vent to her about this kind of thing - this is what your other friends are for.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 3:49 AM on December 16, 2015 [21 favorites]

I also agree it's kindest not to burden her with this, she's probably terrified of dying and leaving a young child behind... I think when she brings it up you should tell her how gorgeous she is and how lucky you are that she's your wife.

My mother was ill with breast cancer and for a long time she couldn't produce saliva, so even if she wanted to kiss- anything beyond a peck on the cheek was uncomfortable/painful...

I think that when you go into crisis illness mode as a couple that sex gets put on a shelf- especially with something as physically destructive as cancer treatment.
posted by flink at 4:42 AM on December 16, 2015 [19 favorites]

Ps- you should also get therapy/find a support group. I see this only happened to you guys this summer, that's not long at all for you to have wrapped your head around this.

I will warn you that when my mother was sick my father was in denial about how sick she really was (also with liver and bone mestastis) he tried to take her on a romantic weekend at 5* hotel and she tried to make him happy But they came home miserable after not being able to get comfortable in the hotel bed.... In reality the best place for her was in her own home with all her little comforts... dont add any other worry to your plates, focus on making a list of things to do as a family or that you can help her do... That is also very intimate!
posted by flink at 4:51 AM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

Talk to her and tell her how much you love her and let her know that you'd love to have a passionate sex life, but that's in the future. For sure get into a support group or therapy because being a caregiver and a parent with a two-year old is a LOT on one person's plate.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 5:03 AM on December 16, 2015 [16 favorites]

There is a book called Breast Cancer Husband that discusses this issue in one of its chapters; I'm not sure what it advises, but I mention it in case it's helpful. (I know that my brother-in-law found the book helpful overall when my sister had cancer.)

My heart goes out to you and your family -- this is such a difficult thing for anyone to face, and your love for your wife shines through so clearly in your desire to balance compassion and honesty.
posted by cider at 5:08 AM on December 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

I agree with cider. My impression as I read the post is you are handling things very well. Frustration is natural but she has a ton of things on her mind that preclude intimacy. The only comment I would have is that masturbation need not be a solo activity. Mileage varies very, very widely on this one.
posted by megatherium at 5:13 AM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm not your wife, but if this were me and my husband, this is what I would love to hear:
1. I adore you, and I am attracted to you and love you
2. It is okay that we are not having intercourse (because)
3. We will pick up that thread when she is feeling better (not if, when - because why not hope for the absolute best)
4. in the meantime, if you're up for it, I can________. (rub your shoulders, run my fingers through your hair, play with your toes, rub cream on your feet, paint your nails, read your favorite book out loud to you etc.)

Some of my most intimate memories with my husband are the moments we have lying in bed together, reading together or touching one another without sex. Memories of sex blend into a big blur - but those special intimate, vulnerable, casual moments? I remember those uniquely forever.
posted by Dressed to Kill at 5:27 AM on December 16, 2015 [62 favorites]

One thing that might help you to know is that the chemo drugs given for breast cancer actually make sex physically painful. It's not just unpleasant, it hurts. I bled. It sucked. So your wife's lack of desire is one thing, and it's no doubt distressing to both of you, but it's not the whole story. Even if you do have sex, she probably isn't enjoying it physically like she used to, which makes her less likely to want to do it again any time soon. And yeah, I had a similar breakdown about the shittiness of this entire situation when I was going through the bad parts of active treatment, and my husband just sat there staring at me in shock for a while and then he sat next to me and hugged me and held my hand and eventually I was better.

Let her grieve. She is grieving every single thing in her life right now. Be her husband, her support. Do you want to be a guy who gives her even one blip of a second of feeling badly that a terminal cancer diagnosis has meant you have to masturbate more often? Don't be that guy.
posted by something something at 6:17 AM on December 16, 2015 [26 favorites]

So when she asks me how do I talk about my frustration

I went through a much shorter set of health issues that were likewise pretty frustrating for my partner and here are some things that worked and did not for us.

- Sex was just off the table for an indefinite period so there wasn't this checking in "Hey do you feel like it NOW... how about now....?"
- This included a lot of "I can't wait til you feel better so that we can ....." talk, off the table. Which doesn't mean that statements of appreciation like "You look beautiful" or "I love the way your shoulder looks in this light" or whatever weren't good but it meant that I needed to feel like there wasn't a clock ticking and that my partner was getting more and more frustrated each day that I still felt bad
- YMMV about this but I feel it's one of those things that you don't actively discuss in more than a cursory "We'll think about that when you are feeling better" way. You can talk to friends or go to a support group (suggested in any case) to talk about these issues at length. She wants support and reassurance and you can do that by basically taking one for the team and not making her deal with your issues right now.
- That said, work on non-sex intimacy. For us there was still a lot of touching and incidental contact and even verbal appreciation. You could tell your wife that you still (if it works for you) would like to cuddle, take baths together, give her foot rubs, sit on the couch holding hands, whatever.

It's hard, when I start feeling really bad, I withdraw pretty seriously and I find that I'm just basically doing triage on the rest of my life (getting to work, feeding myself, maintaining the house) and anything that can wait does wait. Try to figure out a way that you can support your wife with what she is going through but also try to maintain a companionable and sensual (if possible) connection so that you don't feel so out in the cold and lonely.
posted by jessamyn at 7:12 AM on December 16, 2015 [8 favorites]

Yeah, I think your wife is looking for reassurance that you still love her and feeling rotten that she can't provide a thing she knows you want, and that she wants to want even though she currently doesn't.

To her, you need to do your level best to say, lightheartedly, "I love you so much, and of course I can't wait to get you back in the sack when you're feeling better, but hey. It's really not a problem. I've got YOU."

And to be able to say that honestly and with a straight face, you need to find a safe place to vent all your other feelings. You have two lawyers in your head: one says you WANT all these things you can't have; the other says you SHOULDN'T want them. It's okay for you to want sex and a healthy wife and it's ok to feel sad and angry and frustrated that you don't. But you really, really need a place to address and feel those feelings that allows you to spare your wife from having to hear them.

I'm so sorry you're going through this, and wish you and your family all the best.

P.S. I'd tread carefully on the masturbation front - having, in the past, been in the position of wanting to want sex while not actually wanting it, it may be just one more thing she feels she ought to be able to do but can't. If I were your wife, the greatest gift you could give me would be lots of non sexual loving touch (back rubs, foot rubs, brushing hair) with the explicit understanding that you don't expect it to lead to anything sexual. I understand this may be hard for you, but I would appreciate that forever.
posted by telepanda at 7:19 AM on December 16, 2015 [6 favorites]

It's ok to have a conversation about this. You could say to her:

"I hate how hard this illness is on you. I wish there was more I could do to make it easier on you. Sometimes I feel so helpless about your illness. Is there anything I can do to help? Chores, errands, housework, running you a bath, driving you to medical appointments?"

"I miss hugging you when we're fully clothed. I miss holding you naked in bed, without any expectation of sex. Is there is a way we could do that that would be comfortable for you?"

"I still love you, and you are attractive and desirable to me. I am not going anywhere."

"Is there anything sexual that I can do for you? You don't have to do anything to me, it's okay, but would you like me to kiss you, suck on your nipples, give you oral sex, with no expectations that you need to do anything that would tire you out?"

"How would you feel about holding me while I masturbated? It would give me a sense of intimacy and closeness that I don't get when I masturbate away from you."
posted by Year of meteors at 7:22 AM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

You are doing a lot of things right. And I hope you have some emotional support to get you through what is going to be a long haul. My mom got a lot of value out of belonging to a caregivers support group. Lots of people will say "nice" things to you in a vague attempt to be "helpful", but some of those things will be stupid and tactless. A caregivers group is good for finding people who understand your journey because they deal with the friction between what you are supposed to feel (according to our emotional cliches) and how you really feel.

I haven't been thru this kind of severe illness myself, but I imagine that I'd want my husband to use warmth and humor to tell me that he survived many teen years of masturbation and was unharmed by it. That he remembers our early, hot sex life and knows that we are going to have it again, just not in the next six months. I do have a kid, now grown, and my sex life has survived having a little kid banging on the bedroom door (TV didn't hold his attention during commercials) while we were trying to sneak in some sex and asking for permission to eat a cookie. The answer was "Yes, yes, go away and eat all the cookies. We'll be out in a few minutes."
posted by puddledork at 7:59 AM on December 16, 2015 [5 favorites]

I was the caregiver for my spouse through advanced stage breast cancer. This is what caregiver support groups are for. Divert conversations about your frustration right now. She's not in a position to do emotional labor for you.

It sucks and it is sad and lonely. Find an outlet for your feelings that isn't your wife.

I'm really sorry your family is going through this. Please feel free to email me to vent, ask questions, whatever.
posted by kamikazegopher at 10:49 AM on December 16, 2015 [9 favorites]

I really need to find a way to deal with my own head sometimes...

You totally deserve this, you need to do this, but not with her. Is there anybody else you can talk to about this? Support group, trusted friend, therapist? Your frustration is understandable, but it may have to be your burden for now. Things have changed; it's not like before anymore where you can turn to her the way you always could. And you deserve support for that and everything else you're going through, but she's not the one who can give that to you right now.

Anyway, she already knows you're frustrated-- she's already broken down crying over what she can no longer do for you, so there really is no need to hammer the point any further with her.
posted by kapers at 10:52 AM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

she said she was worried I might think she didn't love me any more because of her lack of interest in sex. I

Women get like a bajillion messages every day that we are merely sex objects and that when men say they love us, they really mean they just want to fuck us, often without caring at all about our personal welfare. We also get a bazillion messages that sex is about servicing the needs of men, our sexual needs do not matter and, also also, our looks are the primary reason anyone would want to sleep with us.

You have a unique opportunity to prove to your wife that a) you love her -- I.e. you cherish her company and care about her welfare, with or without sex -- and b) your desire for her is not about her looks.

Yes, it is challenging to stand down the huge tide of cultural messages and stick to conveying how much you love her, how fortunate you feel to be with her, and that your desire to be sexually intimate is not about her looks.

If the lack of sex is driven by her pain and exhaustion, that's fine. Just accept it and deal with your sexual frustration yourself. But if it is driven partly by a sense of shame and ugliness, I would work on making sure she feels desired and desirable in your eyes.

A camera can be a useful tool. Carry a small digital camera and take photos of her. Seeing pictures of myself taken by men who adored me changed how I saw myself. It allowed me to literally see myself through their eyes.

One of these relationships occurred when I was very ill and very overweight. I had tons of emotional baggage from family and society about how fat women might as well just shoot themselves and my health issues made me feel hideous. He took some very attractive, sexy pictures of me and completely changed how I saw myself, how I felt about myself and how I related to the bullshit society tries to hang on me.

He valued his emotional connection to me and intellectual connection first and foremost. He cared about my welfare. He didn't hassle me when I was too I'll and tired to spend time with him. He expressed his pleasure in seeing me again when I was up for spending time with him.

Please don't let this crisis rob you and the love of your life of the opportunity to express your love. It is all too easy to behave like orgasm equals love. But a serious crisis of this sort has tremendous opportunity to foster big positive feelings that make mere sex pale in comparison.

You are both "devastated." Can you talk about that with her in a way that validates how much you love her, adore her and cherish her? Instead of focusing on the sense of loss and hurt, can you focus on the fact that it is devastating because there will never be another love like this one in your life?

I have had men make me feel like all that and a bag of chips under circumstances that proved their interest in me was not merely my looks and not merely about their orgasm. It was sublime and I cherish the experience.

I wish you both well.
posted by Michele in California at 11:31 AM on December 16, 2015 [9 favorites]

I agree with those who say not to make this your wife's problem. Have you ever heard of the Kvetching Order? Like this article describes, your wife is at the center of the circle. You are in the next ring. Close friends and family occupy the next ring outwards, then acquaintances/work friends, etc. If you need to complain or vent your frustrations, only vent outward, away from the center. Comfort In, Dump Out.
posted by fancyoats at 4:40 PM on December 16, 2015 [2 favorites]

I will add that when my father was in ICU after surgery for colon cancer, between the morphine and overhearing some news piece on the TV, he became convinced that terrorists had taken over the ICU. At that time, while recovering from a surgery that had lasted many more hours than anticipated and while doctors were predicting he would not live, his only concern was protecting my mother from the terrorists. (He recovered and lived about two more decades. He died just shy of his 89th birthday.)

Part of what your SO is probably telling you is that losing your love is the worst thing she can imagine. Death is not her biggest concern. Physical pain and misery aren't either. The worst thing she can imagine is losing your love.

Perhaps looking at it that way will give you a place to start that isn't just more pain amidst a challenging situation.
posted by Michele in California at 10:17 AM on December 17, 2015 [1 favorite]

I feel I must chime in here.

Your question breaks my heart. The reason for this is because your life is exactly my life.
Twenty months ago, my wife was diagnosed with stage four breast cancer that had spread to her lungs. At the time, our daughters were 2 and 7. She had no history of cancer, (or any illness at all, for that matter) and was nursing our 2 year old at the time.

My head is swimming with what to say to help you. I'll do my best. Please forgive me if this answer is more general, or if I lapse into chiches. But I felt it important to respond, since I have been facing your exact situation. I’m anonymous on the internet, and this is the most public thing I’ve ever written. Above all, please feel free to Memail me about this. I live in New England- (need to update my profile) and if this happens to be near you, I have resources I would be happy to pass on.

To answer your question of how did we cope: Well, it’s a process. The initial months, which perhaps you’re still in the midst of, my wife now describes us as being “three-legged deer in the headlights”. Your life is turned upside down, and everything you knew or had planned for now seems invalid. It does get better. There will be a point when the cancer becomes your “new normal”, and things will improve, and you will simply get on with the business of life like you previously had been doing. For us, these few months felt like 5 years had elapsed. You are doing so much processing and using so much mental energy on the most important decisions you have ever made. There simply isn’t a word for the kind of mental and physical exhaustion this process entails.

A few critical lessons learned:

1. Get help. You can’t do this on your own. I recommend, in the strongest terms, finding a cancer caregiver’s support group. I find this immensely therapeutic and helpful. It helps to know you’re not alone out there, and it can be very powerful and affirming to meet with people who truly understand what you’re going through.

In the US, 1 in 8 women will get breast cancer, which really is a huge number. No doubt these people have been coming out of the woodwork around you in the last months, chiming in with hopefully helpful advice. While this is nice, remember that breast cancer is an immensely complex set of diseases, and that every person is different. Also, metastatic breast cancer is a completely different animal than all of the pink ribbon find-a-cure crowd, and it is really not a happy feel-good experience. You both need support and acknowledgment of your situation. My wife and I are both scientists and pretty smart, and we didn’t know the first thing about breast cancer.

2. A good therapist is also a very good idea. After attending my support group, it was very clear to me that I had many more issues than were appropriate for the group to deal with. Both of you need support and help dealing with your situations. It might behoove your wife to find a well-recommended therapist who specializes in cancer patients. While there is arguably no more painful process than finding a decent therapist, time is of the essence with this, and it would be good to try. (A disclaimer here: my father was a shrink, and I’ve had therapy before, so I’m inclined to think it’s a good thing to do. My wife has yet to seek therapy for a number of reasons, but anticipates doing so. (maybe it’s a British thing with her) While I wish she would go, I support her decision on this, and it’s important to acknowledge that there’s a whole lot going on in her head.)

As a side note, it seems half my support group is similarly exasperated that their spouses are reluctant to get therapy. Some have worked around this by getting their spouse to attend ‘couples therapy’ with them. This idea might also have some merit on it’s own, and make it easier to discuss sensitive issues.

As to your question on how to reassure your wife about sex and the lack thereof: this is something we too have faced. But I feel I need to stress, as you have written, that not many parents of young children are having much sex either. I don’t mean to sidestep your question, but it might be helpful to reassure your spouse that a lack of sex is often common even in the best of circumstances.

That aside, I think there are a lot of good bits of advice in the posts here. Above all, your wife needs to know that you love her no matter what, and that a lack of sex doesn’t change how your feel about her. I would also strongly echo what others have said about continuing to embrace intimacy even when actual sex is not possible. During the non-sex times, my wife and I often make time to get into bed together fully clothed and just hold each other. This can be a unexpectedly powerful thing.

I completely understand the importance of sex, and I wish I had a better solution. My wife and I are lucky to be able to talk about anything, so that makes it easier to discuss things like sex. We also both have a pretty wicked sense of humor, which has served us well in many parts of this process. (We could be having sex these days, but I blew out my hip, because Jesus, if it’s not one thing, it’s another. All of this can seem magnified when time is of the essence, a fact not lost on me or my physical therapist.)

Before I wrote this, I showed your post to my wife. Normally, I would not do this, as I am extremely careful sharing any kind of cancer material with her. But I felt it would be stupid for me to chime in on this without asking her. After weeping over your predicament, she told me that touch is very important for your wife. It’s important to keep touching, hugging, kissing, etc as you normally would. But she also reminded me that a professional massage can also be very beneficial for her- extra physical touch is always good.

I hope this is somehow helpful. It’s difficult to write about this. I wish all of you the very best. And please know that you are not alone.
posted by MacChimpman at 1:28 PM on December 17, 2015 [15 favorites]

I didn't see this mentioned explicitly above, so here it is. You have every right to feel frustrated and angry and scared here. Your wife is going through a horrible time and she may literally be dying, she's sick and tired and fearful for her life, etc., but that doesn't at all change the fact that you have these feelings. Of course you miss having sex with your wife! Physical intimacy is a tremendously huge part of your marriage, and here you are having to (a) give up that closeness while (b) helping your wife try not to die. And then you ask about it, and lots of people chime in to say "hey look you need to put your own needs aside for now". Which I don't think is tremendously helpful. I mean, if you didn't already know that it's not about Your Orgasm, okay, but I'd wager you actually knew that already.

I believe that you aren't feeling anything wrong at all. What's more, you recognize it, and you're trying to deal as best you can, and Deity bless you through it. The question then becomes, how do I deal with my feelings without letting them control my behavior? How do I maintain this physical connection when my wife is in such pain that she can't bear to be touched? I mean, if she's in good enough shape to buzz one out, you could join her, but what about all the other times where she doesn't even want to (e.g.) have her hand on your thigh while you masturbate?

"Support in, dump out" is great advice, but she's still your wife, and I think she knows you're frustrated and angry and scared, so denying it isn't going to do either of you any good. So how do you share your feelings with her without making it her problem? Answer: you find your own support. Therapist, priest, support group, whatever.
posted by disconnect at 1:33 PM on December 17, 2015 [3 favorites]

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