A male/female couple holds hands inside of a heart, surrounded by more hearts

The Fallible Caregiver Series: Don’t Let Cancer Steal Your Romance

Eight months into our marriage, cancer stole from us the ability to have sex (i.e., intercourse). As the special intimacy of intercourse disappeared from our marriage, other romantic practices and routines slowly followed, again with little notice for those first few years.

Disappearing romantic practices

These disappearing romantic practices and routines were difficult to notice because we are such good friends, and we gel together so well. We could still get on and get along—even have regular fun—despite the growing absence of those physical facets that differentiate roommates from a couple in love.

Let me clarify something important here. I’m not bemoaning and then longing for that first year of infatuated drunkenness. We all know how fantastic those intense feelings are, but I also know it’s a phase and serves as fuel to help get your rocket into a more stable place in space.

These other romantic practices I’ll share below were part of that phase, for sure, but they also carried over with us into space, that is, until cancer started chipping them away.

What metastatic breast cancer stole

The big one I notice is the lack of kissing. I can’t remember the last time we French kissed. At best, I’ll initiate a peck as we leave the house or something.

Hugging, along with non-sexual touching and caressing, are also next to nil as are flirting, compliments of physicality, and conscious efforts to serve and/or pleasure the other.

A huge but subtle disappearance is eye contact. Something special happens at the soul level when you just stop and take a few seconds to stare into each other’s eyes. We used to lie in bed almost every night, heads on our pillows, and just stare at each other. We can go for days now without really ever looking at each other.

It's the little things

These are the little things, little things that play a big part in keeping us emotionally healthy as couples. These practices stimulate and release a host of healthy chemicals in our bodies that help us relieve stress and recharge our batteries.

But as my desires and cues seem irrelevant to her, and as these minor elements have all but disappeared from our relationship, I notice myself pulling back and even giving up. This, of course, puts our rocket ship into a tailspin cycle of drifting further and further into ice-cold (i.e., dead) space.

Cancer is the culprit

My wife and I had a wonderfully mushy romance prior to cancer and even for some time after her re-diagnosis. She is not fighting stage one breast cancer. She did that at 23. She’s facing stage four incurable metastatic breast cancer at 34. As she’s explained to me, it’s an entirely different world than stage one, sadly one which few people understand.

Cancer, I believe, is the primary culprit behind most of our internal (and then external) drift. Cancer never gives; it always takes, takes, takes. Sometimes it takes big and fast, but more often it maliciously chips and shaves off little pieces of a person, physically first, then emotionally.

Cancer has taken so much from her. It’s taken her breasts. It’s taken her hair, permanently. It’s taken her strength and vigor as a young woman. It’s taken her sexual desire. It’s changed her body in ways she doesn’t like. Doing chemo for seven years straight takes a toll and fatigue is crushing. She struggles to feel sexy and attractive (though she is to me).

Finding ourselves and each other

Because my wife that now is not the girl that then was, I know this kills her. I know she’s trying and fighting to find that girl again. She recently dug up all her old journals from 10 years ago when she had stage one. She’s trying to find that younger her who had an unwavering trust in God and hope for the future.

Another factor that’s hurt our relationship is my own struggle with alcohol at times. That’s the issue I turn to here and there to seek relief from the fear and pain of life. I know that’s put a distance between us too.

Her heart breaks over all of this. She’s cried many times over all these issues, including her lack of sexual desire.

Is there still hope?

So, is there still hope for us? If you relate to any of this, is there hope for you? Absolutely! All it takes is two willing hearts. Actually, it can be done with just one willing heart that seeks to make the first move and then keep it up. It doesn’t always work, of course, but after 20 years in the church, I’ve heard countless stories of dead marriages reborn by just one spouse willing to change.

Thankfully, we both have willing hearts. I think we’ve gotten comfortable living on Lazy Lane, but I also think it’s time to fight, not fight each other, but fight for each other. And thankfully, over the last couple of weeks, we’re doing just that.

This is in part what it means to be a cancer fighter. It’s not just about fighting with your treatments; it’s also fighting to take back or redeem what cancer seeks to take away. It’s about fighting to redeem, restore, and even improve the pieces cancer has cut and chipped off.

We know that this is a personal subject area, but we hope that you are willing to share. What has your experience with sex and intimacy been? Engage in this important conversation and ask questions in our forum dedicated to this topic.

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