When I was a cop there was a standard joke we used to make whenever someone was up to their elbows in something difficult or messy or awkward or horrifying (which was pretty much most of the time). You’d wait until the terror or frustration or disgust was showing and you’d say “I suppose a root’s out of the question.”
For those unfamiliar with Australian slang, here’s a translation:
“I’m guessing now is not the appropriate time to suggest we engage in sexual intercourse.”
The slang is funnier. It would usually lighten the mood, give us both a laugh and allow us to get through a difficult situation with our sanity intact. I best remember it from a particularly harrowing day when I was required to stand in the middle of a very busy intersection to prevent cars from running over the remains of an accident victim. Not all of the accident victim, just part of him. Pretty horrible. My Commander decided to attend the scene because of the seriousness of the accident. He was quiet, serious and dedicated officer and as a junior constable I had only ever referred to him as ‘Sir’. As he drove past me he rolled down the window, looked at my circumstances and horrified expression, and said, “I suppose a root’s out of the question.” Brilliant.
I suspect that concerns regarding sexual harassment have limited or eradicated this tradition. I hope not. It was never sexual or unwelcome. It was always accepted in the spirit with which it was spoken, a tension breaker in difficult times.
I think of it now when I look in the mirror. Chemotherapy has left me bald and puffy. My eyebrows and eyelashes are gone. I’m bloated and producing enough methane to power a small village. My body is literally toxic. My husband has been warned that he needs to use a condom if we want to have sex. Even kissing makes me nervous.
I suppose a root’s out of the question? Yes. Yes, I’m pretty sure it is.
I had a chuckle recently when I read that one of the breast cancer charities was doing research into sex during treatment. I thought to myself ‘Well that’s going to be a quick bit of research!’
I don’t know when talking about sex went back into the awkward basket but it seems to me that it has. I was lucky enough to be born in the early sixties which meant enjoying my single years at a time before HIV, after contraception and surrounded by a media where there was a running competition to see who could be more explicit. Is it just me or a things a lot more conservative now?
Maybe I just feel awkward revealing the truth. I’m not getting any. When I talk to other women fighting cancer they’re not getting any either. How we feel about this varies from woman to woman but the greatest concern seems to be the potential damage to our relationships. Will our partners look elsewhere? Should they look elsewhere? Do we even want sex? (mostly not) Will we ever feel like it again once the drug-induced menopause leaves our bodies and hormone levels changed? And then there’s the after effects of surgery. It’s a subject that a lot of us don’t talk about while at the same time wishing we had someone to talk to about it.
In movies where the star gets a serious illness her partner holds her hand and says “You’ll always be beautiful to me, my love!”. Of course the star usually continues to actually look beautiful, with an elegantly tied head scarf that brings out the colour in her eyes, a pale and interesting complexion blessed by a professional makeup artist and all the benefits of a soft focus lens.
When I express concerns about my appearance my husband will say something like, “At least you’re alive to complain about it.” or perhaps, “Well, they did warn you about this.” Not exactly a precursor to foreplay.
Please don’t misunderstand me. One of the things I love most about this man is his honesty. I trust him because I know he always speaks the truth. The romantic in me wonders what it would be like to have a husband that lies to me and tells me I still look beautiful to him. The pragmatist knows that a man that lies about one thing will lie about other things. Give me honesty. Even when it hurts.
Perhaps you’re thinking it’s possible that “You’re still beautiful” isn’t a lie and that there a people on this earth that can see beauty beneath illness. I allow that it’s possible but I’m yet to experience it.
I find it useful in situations like this to turn the tables. If Graham was the one battling illness and his body had been ravaged by the life-saving wonder of chemotherapy, would I still want to have sex with him? If I’d been warned that anything coming out of his body was toxic and I needed to protect myself from it, would I feel horny baby? Honestly?
No. I’m pretty sure I wouldn’t. Sex for me is partly about physicality and there’s nothing attractive about serious illness. In fact, most of us have a built in recoil reflex when it comes to sickness and we use our logic to overcome it. I’m grateful that he’s still affectionate. I don’t expect him to find me sexually attractive. I certainly don’t. And I don’t think I’d find him sexually attractive if the situation was reversed.
This is different to loving him. Nothing could ever stop me loving this man and I certainly don’t want to have sex with anyone else.
We haven’t had long conversations about it. There’s just a mutual understanding that, for the time being, sex is not a priority for us. We still cuddle every night. It’s a great source of comfort for both of us. We still say ‘I love you’ at least once a day, not because it’s a thing we have to do but because it’s just a natural part of our relationship. We love each other and we like to say so. We still kiss (he’s such a risk-taker!) and hug. The sex can wait.
It’s possibly much easier for me being past 50. Many of my friends are in relationships where sex has taken a back seat and things like companionship, affection, mutual support, shared interests and laughter have assumed prominence. The only woman close to my age having lots of sex has recently remarried. We all know that intensity won’t last but we also rejoice in the fact that after many years of being on her own she seems to have found the love of her life. She’s the exception. My other friends are all having less sex than they did when they were younger and some are having very little sex, or no sex, for a range of reasons. None of them have cancer.
We all grew up with ‘The Joy of Sex’. Maybe we need a new book. ‘The Joy After Sex.’
It must be so much harder for younger women, diagnosed when their sex life is at its peak. Even harder for those that are forced to abandon dreams of having children. Sex becomes less important as you get older.
When I talk to other women with cancer about the lack of sex the word that comes up most often is ‘relieved’. We really don’t feel very sexy. For some it’s a source of anxiety because they’re concerned about what it will do to their relationship and whether or not their husband will leave them. These are real fears. Some men don’t stick around. Cancer hits your relationship like an earthquake. Any weakness gets exploited. The cracks start to show.
For some women, cancer is an opportunity to finally face facts about their relationship. It’s not only men that leave.
I think it’s important to remember that cancer is making both of us tense and anxious and that it brings an emotional shit-storm with it. Anger can leak into everything like meat juice through the fridge. It helps to remember that we are each responsible for our own happiness and our partner is not to blame for our illness and not deficient because they have failed to fix us. Sounds obvious, I know, but this statement is a revelation for so many of us nursing an unspoken anger towards our partners and not having anything more articulate than a growl to express it.
The three year old in my head wants to say “I’m angry that I have cancer and that you don’t, and you can’t fix me, and you can’t understand what I’m going through, and you can’t make it all go away, and you can’t kiss it better and you can’t make me happy ” When I let the three year old say that stuff out loud it floats away. The silliness of it becomes obvious when it’s exposed to fresh air. I’m pretty sure my husband’s three year old is shouting, “I hate that I can’t fix you and that you’re making me feel inadequate and that you need to focus so much on you and not on me….” and so on. Sometimes his three year old makes him a bit snappy or a bit snarky but for the most part he’s been great.
I think Graham and I will come out of this stronger and closer than we went in. We’re six months in now and it’s looking good. It’s a surprise to both of us to realise how unimportant sex really is to us, particularly when we’re fighting for my life. And for his life too, I suppose.
I’m doing everything I can to avoid the romantic death scene from Hollywood, where he clutches my hand while I drift in and out of consciousness. If we get served a curve ball and wind up there, in spite of all our hard work and positive thinking, then I do not want him to tell me that I will always be beautiful. As I lay there connected to tubes and machines I hope he says this:
“I suppose a root’s out of the question.”