Falling in Love Again

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I’ve only written one post about sex and cancer. Here it is for those that missed it the first time around:

https://positive3neg.wordpress.com/2014/01/07/i-suppose-a-ro…f-the-question/

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:

“Each state and territory has compiled its own set of relationship skills courses and seminars that are responsive to the needs of the community.
 People participate in relationship courses and seminars to gain insights, knowledge, skills and understanding to enhance their relationships.  They also attend to get support and to explore similar relationship experiences with others and to hear from others about what works for them in their relationship.”
Hmmm. Sounds about as sexy as a trip to the motor registry. Also, our relationship is great. It’s just the sex that needs a boost. Not surprisingly there’s a lot of courses out there including courses in tantric love and something intriguingly called ‘the 100 candle surprise retreat’. Perhaps not.
I also avoided the course that promised to help me identify which shamanistic animal type represented my sexuality. I have bad luck with anything that assigns animal archetypes. I always want to be a lion or a tiger but I’m a capricorn born in the Chinese year of the Ox. You see how that works.
After a bit of google I found Jacqueline Hellyer’s short workshops. Here’s the link:

http://www.jacquelinehellyer.com/tantra_workshops

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.

7 thoughts on “Falling in Love Again

  1. Great blog! I was still in my ” honey moon ” phase what I got my dx. Not many people talk about how all the bc crap as a whole effects your sex life. The weight gain, the neuropathy the toxic va jay jay I can soooo relate! Now it started all over again for me last year with the total hysterectomy and this year with the mastectomy. I think my husband has more estrogen in him then I do at this point! I’m 39 and three years my life and sex life on hold. And sadly a future of me carrying a baby of our own was taken by cancer. Good for you to find your way back to each other. I pray once I’m all patched up we will regain the normalcy of once was a marriage not caregiver and patient.

    • Hang in there my friend. I hope the idea of being intimate without having sex holds some value for you. It really helped me to feel less deprived. If you can find some kind of couples course close to you, when you’re ready, I’d recommend you give it a try. Yes, some of it will feel awkward and you’ll probably get the giggles at least once, but it will be worth it. X

      • Yes he is amazing and I know he loves me on my worse of days. I just feel things r so clinical right now, I’ve gotten more felt up by doctors then by my husband lol. We are planning a week long MUCH needed vacation for just him n I to focus on us. I’m thinking st john, actually I’d love Fiji that’s my bucket list place! Just have to see if I finally get my denied disability claim over turned. If they don’t I will be all over the news here 🙂 but truthfully I’d just be happy for a weekend with no mention of BC or bills stuff like that to replenish is as a couple. But kudos to you for this blog, no one tells you how sex is with cancer. The one plus is you can wear different wigs n be someone new each night Lol(;my wigs where too hot I opted for scarfs also a sexy option lmao) thank you again. Its so wonderful to have someone to share this with xo

  2. Oh I agree with you about the wigs. Far too hot! Now that we’re coming into Autumn I might get a nice red one for the bedroom. 😀
    Thanks so much for your comments. I used to work in child protection so I’ve spent a lot of time understanding dysfunctional human sexuality. It gave me a deep appreciation of what’s healthy and normal. Perhaps if we were all more open about it there’d be less of the dysfunctional stuff.
    Fiji is gorgeous and very reasonably priced. Where is St John?

  3. Brilliant blog about a basic human activity that we all do, but rarely discuss in such an open and honest manner! Sex is definitely a lot more than penetrative intercourse. Hope u got some excellent intimacy at the end of your course, even if the crashingly good sex went out the window. Thank you!

    • Thanks so much Jessica. I agree that there needs to be far more open discussion about sex. It’s such an important part of our lives and so rarely discussed. Graham and I happily brought the subject up at a friends bbq on the weekend and after some initial awkwardness we all had a great conversation about it.

      Please know I DID have crashingly good sex and plan on having more of it. 😀

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