I’ve only written one post about sex and cancer. Here it is for those that missed it the first time around:
Trigger warning for anyone that doesn’t like reading about her mother having sex, or anyone else that would rather not know about my intimate life. You can skip this post.
Back when I wrote my first post about sex I was bald in an all over kind of way. I was puffy from steroids and gaining weight. I felt about as sexy as a pair of sensible shoes.
Since then I’ve recovered from surgery, grown a nice pixie hair style and a perfect pair of eyebrows. I’ve even had to shave my legs for the first time in nine months. My daughter tells me not to worry about the weight I gained during chemotherapy (“Your body is fighting cancer, Mum. That’s enough for now.”), so I’m not going to give it more than a passing nod as I keep up with my daily yoga, eating well and feeling good.
I’ve still got some peripheral neuropathy in my arms and legs but it’s tolerable. I know it will improve over the next year or so. Nerve endings take a long time to grow back. I’ve started radiation and although it’s not at all pleasant, it’s already one week in and only five to go. This too shall pass.
Going through a period of time when I didn’t feel much like sex, and where my husband, thanks to the warnings that my body was highly toxic, didn’t feel much like joining me, has made me realise how much I enjoy sex. Not just any sex, but that deeply emotional connection you can only achieve by having sex with someone you love and someone that loves you in return.
Cancer makes you think about your priorities. If your time is limited, what are the things that really matter? If you only have a few years left (and with triple negative cancer you really need to consider this) then how do you want to spend them?
Some people find conversations around this subject depressing but I enjoy them. We are all going to die and it seems to me that being reminded of that is a good thing. It’s a wonderful way to strip back the inconsequential. If you let it.
When you’ve had a cancer diagnosis you also need to plan for the possibility of a long, slow slide into debilitating illness, because if cancer is going to kill you it will usually involve that very unpleasant slope. You need to think about which activities will require the most physical wellness. I’ll probably be reading books until the last time I close my eyes but stand up paddle boarding has a limited window. This is true for everyone, even if you never get cancer. As we age, most of us will experience a reduction in our physical ability. It’s worth planning for.
One of the best things about having cancer has been the ease with which my husband and I can have a conversation about how precious our time is, and how it’s important to identify what really matters to us. The last time we spoke about this, my husband asked me what one thing I would put at the top of my list. I said, “I’d like to fall in love again.”
He looked like I’d punched him.
I realised what had happened and said, “Oh Darling, I don’t mean with someone else. I mean with you!”
Really, of all the things I’ve done in my life, falling in love has to be a contender for my number one spot. Giving birth is up there too, but at 52 I don’t think I’ll be doing that again. But falling in love is possible, achievable, and easy for those of us already in relationships with people we love. What a wonderful thing it is to have that kind of connection with another human being. How joyful.
One of the benefits of falling in love is the excellent sex that comes with it. What’s at the top of my ‘bucket list’? Well, I want to fall in love again, and I want to have falling-in-love sex again.
The trouble is that Graham and I were struggling before I got cancer. He’d been sick for a couple of years and his recovery was long and slow. We never stopped being kind to each other or affectionate, but somehow, even when we’d reached the point where sex was once again an option, we just let sex slide. I think this happens to a lot of couples, and happens far too easily. I found myself reluctant to initiate sex in case it wasn’t wanted.
Graham credits his English heritage with his reluctance to talk openly about sex. Of course, I belong to the school of thought that if you can’t have a conversation about sex it’s very easy for assumptions and misunderstandings to undermine you. We had reached a kind of sexual stale mate.
My cancer diagnosis didn’t help things at all. Apart from looking and feeling shocking, I was told that chemotherapy meant we couldn’t have sex without my husband wearing a condom to avoid toxicity. Yes. A toxic vagina. Now that’s about as unsexy as it gets.
I think it’s a credit to the strength of our relationship that while neither of us has been happy about the absence of sex it hasn’t been a major issue. I think we both recognise that one of the physical limitations as we age is likely to be sexual performance. But we don’t need to lose the intimacy.
We decided some months ago that we would end each day by spending some time in bed just holding each other. Sometimes we talk and sometimes we don’t but for both of us this has become a gentle and comforting way to reconnect. Recently I’ve been feeling like it would be nice to go further, but it’s not easy.
There’s now new concerns about the physical impact that my treatment has had on my body. Will sex still be okay? Or even possible? Does peripheral neuropathy affect the nerve endings anywhere else in my body? Do all lubricants smell like hand sanitizer? These are the details I fret over.
The bigger issue has been how to get across the gulf. How do we move from affectionate friends to passionate lovers?
I considered a sex therapist, but we didn’t really need therapy. We just needed some kind of a jump start.
I love a good short course or a workshop so I went in search of one. I know some people feel awkward about this sort of thing but I’m of the view that there’s not much you can experience in life that’s completely unique. Most of what we live through is well travelled by others, and some of them have been generous enough to share what knowledge they acquired on that journey. Books can be another great way to access this knowledge but I wanted something we could do together.
After surgery, I was given physiotherapy exercises to help me regain full movement in my left arm and to prevent complications. Sometimes we need emotional physiotherapy.
I decided against the Relationships Australia courses:
The course descriptions looked interesting. There’s a little bit of tantra in there but it’s clearly not going to be about three hours of coitus without movement while you experience the divine connection (as one other course promised). Jacqueline also appears to be well qualified and her courses come with this disclaimer:
“All workshops are practical, liberating and inspiring, completely classy and sleaze-free. There’s no need to share personal details, and there’s no nudity or actual sex – that’s the homework!”
Okay. Good. Because although I love sex and I’m more than happy to talk about it, I have no desire at all to engage in group sex, or sex in the presence of other people, or to watch other people have sex. I really just want to have sex with my husband.
I sent Graham the link, asking him to take a look and see what he thought (remember, he’s not comfortable having conversations about sex). A couple of days later he appeared at the door of my study and said, “I think we should do that course.” This is part of why I love him. He might be shy about the conversation but that doesn’t mean he’s clueless about the problem and he’s always happy to sign up for anything from cooking classes to salsa dancing if it gives us a shared experience.
We took Jacqueline’s recommendation and signed up for all three workshops. Graham headed off to the men only ‘Black Belt in the Bedroom’ as I reflected on how lucky I am to be married to someone that’s prepared to participate in this sort of thing. A lot of men would scoff at it. The description of the four hour evening looked intriguing and actually a lot more interesting to me that the women’s workshop.
He arrived home with a grin on his face and told me that he didn’t want to discuss the details until I’d been to my ‘Luscious Women’ workshop the following evening, although he did tell me he thought the evening was ‘very worthwhile’ and that they’d had beer and pizza for dinner. I joked the the women’s workshop would probably be quiche and salad.
The women’s workshop included some participants with some serious problems and most of the evening was spend ‘going around the room’ so that participants could ‘share their story’. I was wishing there was a female version of ‘Black Belt in the Bedroom’.
I think it’s fair to assume that any course you do will contain some things that are relevant to you, some that aren’t and sometimes, some that you actually object to. This course was no different. I found Jacqueline’s repeated characterisation of men as ‘simple’ annoying. Deriding men might be a great way to bond with the single women in the room, or those in unhappy relationships. I find my husband to be at least as complex as I am and the same to be true of most men I know.
I also found her division of humanity along fairly traditional gender lines to be irritating. The whole ‘women are soft on the outside and strong on the inside while men are strong on the outside but secretly soft on the inside’ is just rubbish to anyone with a feminist sensibility and a passing knowledge of human psychology. She uses the ancient Chinese symbol of ‘Yin and Yang’ as a model for her paradigm, apparently missing the irony; this symbol of the balance between male and female is meant to be something that each of us strive for as individuals. All the same, at least one woman considered this model to be profoundly useful. She had ‘a false yang that was hiding her true yin and thereby preventing her inner yang to be fully realised.’
I sat through most of this without comment, other than to offer that some of us had genuine ‘outer yang’ even though we were women and to object to her use of the phrase ‘ball breaking’ to describe strong, competent women. A feminist she is not.
That’s not to say I didn’t get something good out of the ‘Luscious Women Workshop’. I liked her suggestion that we redefine ‘sex’ to include all forms of intimacy. I have been guilty in the past of only counting genital intercourse as ‘real sex’ and for no other reason than social conditioning. Even the legal definition of intercourse is broader than that. Defining all forms of intimacy as legitimate expressions of our sexuality is a great idea, particularly as we get older. It allowed me to move from “I’ve only had sex once in the last year.” to “My husband and I have lots of very gentle, satisfying sexual contact on a regular basis.” This was no small thing for me.
I also liked Jacqeuline’s analogy for male and female sexuality (gender stereotypes aside). She describes male sexuality as being like fire, igniting quickly and burning itself out, and female sexuality as being like water, a lot slower to heat up but able to hold heat for much longer. Her advice to all of us seeking to be luscious was to see to our own simmering. It’s unreasonable to expect a man to take you from frozen to boiling at every sexual encounter. I really liked this analogy and admit that I had fallen into a pattern of waiting for my husband to ‘warm me up’. I’ll be doing that myself in future.
To be fair, there was a lot of information in the folder for the Luscious Women Workshop that we didn’t get around to and most of it looks a lot more interesting than the seven goddess model. I’m sorry we never got around to the ‘flute breathing’ or the ‘visualisations to raise sexual energy’. Jacqueline conceded that they’ve only recently reduced the course to four hours so perhaps they’ll get better at delivering more content in less time.
Dinner was salad and quiche.
Once I’d finished the workshop Graham and I had a great conversation in the car on the way home about what we’d both gotten out of the respective individual evenings. Graham observed that he really saw now that it wasn’t possible to have a good sexual relationship without talking about it (and for this alone I would recommend the workshop) and that he didn’t think he’d learnt anything new but that he’d been reminded of some things that he shouldn’t have forgotten. Physiotherapy.
I told him that I didn’t think much of Jacqueline’s seven sex goddesses. Nor did I get much from visualising each of them in turn and thinking about what colour or smell came to mind. I don’t understand how my ‘warrior’ is really a negotiator and the whole model feels contrived, as if she’s trying to come up with the basis for a blockbuster of ‘Mars and Venus’ proportions. I also apologised for not simmering my own water and shared my joy at the notion of redefining sex to include a lot more than just intercourse.
Which brings us to the couples workshop.
This was a much better use of my time and money than the women’s workshop. Once again, a lot of this was not new to us. We liked the way Jacqueline used pieces of music to time the different exercises. “Sit facing one another and make eye contact. Keep maintaining eye contact until the end of the piece of music. If you find this too intense then just close your eyes briefly.”
The exercises in the first part of the evening included melting hugs and breathing in unison. We were prompted to ‘open up’ to the love we felt for one another. Yes, some of this did feel awkward and forced but some of it felt like rekindling something important to both of us.
We also did playback conversations. For those unfamiliar with this tried and tested therapy technique, one person starts a sentence with “I really appreciate it when you………” or “I really love it when you………….” and the other responds with “What I’m hearing is that you really appreciate it when I………………..” If the second person gets the playback right then the first person just says something like ‘that’s right’. If they don’t get it right then the first person gently corrects them. We both enjoyed this. It’s a very structured form of communication but it does give you the opportunity to tell your partner about some of the things you really love about them.
Although we were cautioned to stick to the script for playback conversations, one couple managed to shift into conflict. You need to stick to the script if you want to get any benefit from this type of exercise.
After dinner (salad and quiche again – is that significant?) the exercises included feeding each other dessert with one person blindfolded and asking each other to touch us in ways we enjoyed. Yes, it was a clothes on workshop and Graham and I spent most of the time giggling and massaging each other’s feet. Some couples got pretty worked up but the game was over before anyone got messy.
The evening ended with an invitation to a couples retreat in the Blue Mountains or Bali. Or perhaps we’d like to come along to the ‘Tantric Lounge’ held weekly in Sydney. Probably not but we might have a look at some of the other ‘couples retreats’ on offer to see if we can find something that appeals to us.
By the time we drove back to the Central Coast we were both too tired to do anything other than fall into bed and pass out, but the material we covered in the workshops has continued to be a great source of interesting (and sometimes hilarious) conversations.
Did I fall in love with my husband again?
Yes. Yes I did.
Did I get crashingly good sex as a consequence?
What do you think.