Marital Status?

April 22, 2010

Recently, at the suggestion of a security-minded friend, I changed some of the info available about me on Facebook. For example, I had listed myself as “married,” and she pointed out that that info wasn’t necessary. I deleted “married,” and the next day facebook announced to the world that I had “changed my marital status.” I freaked. My marriage is precious to me, and the last thing the author of a book on surviving prostate cancer and staying married wants is for the world to think that my marital status has changed.
On a recent interview Dean and I did for The People’s Pharmacy ( show # 765), Dr. Mark McClure noted that prostate cancer diagnosis and treatment can either drive a couple in different directions or bring them closer together.
Ultimately, we were brought together, but it was dicey for awhile; that’s why I wrote How We Survived Prostate Cancer, because I didn’t just want to physically survive it, I wanted to survive it with our marriage intact.
The issues that surround prostate cancer are famously touchy, not the least of which is erectile function and continence. Other things lay in wait for the innocent couple, such as depression, loss of identity, loss of libido–it’s a terrifying list.
My marital status is still “married;” we can say that, because we have redefined what marriage is for us. We have given each other the room to grow and change and, yes, survive. I suppose I am still touchy about the notion that I have “changed my marital status.” More precisely, I/we have changed the nature of what we call marriage. I wonder who else out there might feel this way?

If He Were a Tree

April 1, 2010

Who Are We Now?

The fifteen-year-old pussywillow in our side yard keeled over last month, a victim of heavy snow. It lay prone for several weeks, having crushed the park bench that sat beneath it, until my neighbor with a chainsaw managed to render it into firewood. I helped collect and break the branches–called “whips,”–blooming with furry “catkins” despite the tree’s demise. I saved as many branches as I could and gave a number away, knowing they root easily in water. This forty foot tree, in fact, came from a rooted branch I’d bought at a long ago farmer’s market. This week my own cuttings at last took root, and I’ll plant them soon; I’ve heard recently from a number of friends “It’s got roots, even leaves!” All this and the tree itself is hardly dead. Two or three “whips” from the twelve-inch severed trunk have already sprouted.

Who knows what shape it will take in its new incarnation? Incarnation is a funny word to use in a botanical context, with its implications for flesh (carne is Latin for meat), so perhaps resurrection, is better, this taking on of a new form.

I wish it were as easy for humans to undergo radical physical change, but we’re more complicated than trees, having, among other things, memory and consciousness. Oh yes we rise beyond health emergencies and treatments–or dismemberments–of various kinds. My husband, for example (he’s always my first example when it comes to health) has survived so many alterations: juvenile macular degeneration, the loss of a third of his colon to emergency appendectomy, necrosis of bone in his knee, the death and rebirth of six inches of nerve tissue in his arm and, of course, prostate cancer, treatments which pretty much levelled his libido and destroyed erectile function. He lost urinary function for a while–that’s fairly typical, but it returned with the help of acupuncture and drugs, and has remained intact ever since. Our intimate life together changed in ways we’re still trying to sort out. I wrote a book to try to heal it. Sometimes I think of that book as a love letter, and sometimes it’s a letter to the world and to all of the confused partners of men who have suffered these kinds of treatments and are wondering, who are we now?

If Dean were a tree he wouldn’t remember the branches taken away, or what it felt like to stand with those branches forty feet in the air. Something unconscious and innocent–call it the impulse towards life, is healing the intact roots in my side yard right now. And eight years after cancer, aware as we are of who we once were, we lie down together, starting each time all over again, and taking nothing for granted.

A Woman Joining Man to Man–Alone

March 17, 2010

As far as I can tell, I’m a pioneer: the first woman in my chapter of Man to Man (prostate cancer support group) to join by herself. It took me a lot longer than it should have, considering the fact that my husband had been diagnosed and treated for prostate cancer almost three years before I stood up in front of a group of almost all guys and told our story.

In those days, Dean was still resistant to the idea of a monthly meeting. Prostate cancer was behind him and he wanted it to stay well to the rear. But we had changed, and it was cancer that had done that to us, generating questions like, “How do we reinvent intimacy?” “Who am I now?” “Why [in my case] am I so lonely?” Pragmatic questions about new forms of treatment, and what to do if cancer were somehow to return I hoped, would be discussed in depth, with updates on the various treatment options into the bargain.

There were that night, and are to this day, other women, but none of them had come alone. The ones who come do so to support their husbands, thanks to the presence of a nurse and trained group facilitator (a breast cancer survivor herself)–the wife of the group’s consultant urologist. Eventually I pursuaded Dean to start coming–“You’ve got to be my date!” And so, he’s been there next to me on the second monday of every month except July and August for three years now. If it were up to him, he’d stay home, but he knows that cancer changed both of us and our marriage (if you want to know more about this, read my book, How We Survived Prostate Cancer: What we did and what we should have done. Dean’s voice is all through it. At first, when I began writing it, he kept his distance, but thanks to a handy tape recorder, he’s had lots to say.

In part I joined the meeting because, at the three year point I was actively writing this book, and Man to Man has a research dimension for me. But if there had been no book goading me to join, I’d be a lot sadder and more confused and certainly more ignorant. The big questions in paragraph 2 above come up in an oblique sense occasionally–everyone is scared of them, I sense. There’s plenty of practical information to be had, and then there are the blessings. (I would have hated to call them this once, because I was so angry at cancer and at life).

Blessing #1: We’ve made good friends in the group we hope to keep for life.

Blessing #2: Others come who just received a diagnosis. These are the smart ones who didn’t wait three years. We get to ease their confusion and terror and give them a wealth of perspectives on the various treatment options. There is something really healing about this process–that our suffering was not wasted.

So, to anyone out there–especially women–who are wondering what to do, I say join a support group even if you have to go alone. Even if your partner isn’t ready, and the group has that forbidding title “Man to Man.” Get in your car or on the subway or bus, whatever. Strength is in community.

You’re Not Alone if You’re Too Tired for Sex

March 9, 2010

“Study Finds Many Are Too Tired for Sex” notes the Science page of The New York Times (Tuesday, March 9, 2010).  For men and their partners who’ve suffered and survived prostate cancer, it may come as a relief to learn we’re not alone. The article observes that “one in every four Americans married or living with someone say they are so sleep-deprived that they are often too tired to have sex.” Insomnia and sleep deprivation are obvious factors as are stress in its various guises–including work, health and fiscal matters; alcohol and late-night television weigh in too.

If the general public is already experiencing stress and sleeplessness, how much worse is it for couples post prostate cancer treatment? And how much farther down the list of physical needs might sexual activity be for these couples? Certainly, we’ve all suffered our share of sleep deprivation (I can easily recall my husband jumping up six or more times a night to urinate, and, as a result of treatments, he can add tinnitis (ringing in the ears) to his list of chronic afflictions. The cancer diagnosis itself is hardly “something to sleep on,” and then, for our particular population, add loss of libido for some men and the challenge of actually getting an erection for almost every man treated. Women are affected too, our sense of attractiveness perhaps diminished and our own sleep patterns and living patterns greatly altered.

How do we de-stress our lives? Is it possible to get rest? How does a couple go about reclaiming intimacy?  We’re all working on these problems, and we’re not alone. Does anybody out there have any ideas for ways of reclaiming both rest and intimacy?