Cancer is killing my sex life

My partner says he's just not attracted to me "right now"

Published November 9, 2009 1:07AM (EST)

Dear Cary,

I have been fighting bone metastatic cancer for two years now. During my last treatment my hair fell out. The treatments have made me gain rather than lose weight. Until now, I have always been vibrant and beautiful, inside and out, but the treatments have taken their toll. I am still a happy person and very positive. I complain very little and still work full-time.

I have a life partner with whom I have lived for seven years. We haven't made love in over four months. Yesterday he told me that he is not sexually attracted to me "right now." He said that he is dealing with the cancer just as I am. He said that he doesn't even think about sex anymore (he is 47 years old) and that there is no one else (although sometimes I get the feeling there is).

Wouldn't a man who loves a woman be sexually attracted to her regardless of changes in appearance? Isn't 47 a little too young for a man to lose his sex drive? Could he be cheating? He was always a "player" in his younger days. I feel more like a roommate than a partner ... but I do the clothes, cooking, housekeeping, etc. What gives?

Cancer Survivor

Dear Cancer Survivor,

I don't know exactly what gives, but I do know that illness changes things, and that illness changes things not just for the one who is ill but for the one who loves the one who is ill, and I know that the thought of a loved one's early death changes things, and one's attitude toward the loved one as being one who may be dying changes things, and that when the possible death of a lover looms we sometimes try to say the big, full, undeniable truth before it is too late, whether we are capable of saying what needs to be said or not, and that, accustomed to speaking mostly of surfaces, we are not prepared to speak in a way that encompasses the nearness of death, nor are we ready for the epic unlayering of the soul.

And so in the presence of this enormous and life-changing circumstance one says things like, Not right now, I don't think so, and, It's not you, it's me. He may be facing this and have no idea what it means or how to deal with it. All he knows is that he is stuck and he is scared and he is not the one who is supposed to be scared because you are the one who is sick. So he says what he can.

You ask, "Wouldn't a man who loves a woman be sexually attracted to her regardless of changes in appearance?" I don't know. I don't know that a man who loves a woman would necessarily be sexually attracted to her despite changes in her appearance, but neither do I think that his reaction to you is a reaction to your change in appearance alone. His reaction to you is a reaction to the truth these changes reveal: that you are a person with a life-threatening illness, which fills him with grief and fear and thoughts of his own mortality. He may also have superstitious fears. If, for instance, he has a deeply rooted code of morality and perhaps religion inculcated since childhood, he may be feeling things that he literally is not allowed to feel -- for instance he may feel it is sacrilegious to celebrate life in a sexual way with someone who is gravelly ill. Your illness may recall to him the illnesses of women in his past who have died, and he may be unaware of the power of these echoes, these reminders.

Given the depth and strangeness of the possibilities, it may take some effort for him to discover exactly what he is feeling; if what he is feeling is taboo, or runs against the grain of what he feels a good and virtuous man would feel, then it may be nearly impossible for him to discover what he is feeling without the help of a guide.

So what can you do?

Do you and he have a way of talking that allows for the difficult to be said? Do you have a very good way, an excellent way, of talking and being heard and hearing this difficult thing? I imagine you must, because the difficult has come to stay with you and you have not stopped talking. But since you are still working a full-time job, there may not be enough time for you and him to talk through all that needs to be talked through. It takes hours and hours.

Among the things that may need saying is this:

Has he said that while your presence used to arouse his dreams of life and vibrant health, it now arouses fears of dying? Would that be too hard for you to hear?

We think of cancer and we think of death. That is its place in our world. We have given it that place, but it has also taken that place, aggressively, by repeated demonstrations of its power. If you are the one who has cancer it's likely you have made your peace with this because you have to. But those of us who do not have cancer may not have made our peace with its power. So we can pretend. We can say, I know you'll be OK, and, I'm just not attracted to you right now, thinking that these evasions could save us somehow.

In trying to be kind to you, he may not be telling you everything. Perhaps your instinct is correct, that he has sought intimacy with another woman. Perhaps his affections have wandered but in an entirely chaste way, which is still hard to bear. Trust what you feel. Ask for what you want. Seek the truth.

Write Your Truth.

What? You want more advice?


By Cary Tennis

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