A prostate cancer diagnosis can lead to profound changes in a man’s relationship with his partner. As the most common non-skin, male-specific cancer in the U.S., prostate cancer affects one in nine men. Approximately 165,000 men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer this year and 29,000 men will die from the disease. While early detection and treatment can save lives, treatment side effects can have a negative impact on quality of life.
The prostate gland is part of the male reproductive system. Therefore, treatment side effects can include erectile dysfunction and incontinence, which can be temporary or ongoing. These side effects can take a toll on sexual health and intimacy: in fact, sexual dysfunction is often identified as the most common long-term side effect after prostate cancer treatments like surgery or radiation.
“We don’t always recognize and talk about the ways that prostate cancer is also a couple’s disease,” says Dr. Anne Katz, a renowned author and clinical nurse specialist who has devoted her career to helping men and their partners work through intimacy issues. “When prostate cancer treatment affects a man’s ability to perform sexually, that eliminates what is a very important expression of love for his partner. That can have an emotional impact on the man and his partner. We often see that leading to a downward spiral of distance and withdrawal.”
Find common ground
Address these challenges by talking openly about one’s sexual needs while being respectful of the other partner. Acknowledge that this conversation may be uncomfortable. It may feel a bit like threading a needle … while wearing oven mitts. Neither wants to appear selfish. Neither wants to upset the other during an already stressful time. And, for many couples, discussing these deeply personal issues in open conversation feels awkward. The natural thing to do is to avoid talking about it rather than risk the embarrassment of a possible rejection.
Recognize that communication is the best way for any couple to address their issues about intimacy. Enter the conversation with the mindset that you and your partner can support each other and find common ground. Hold the conversation in a neutral area — away from the bedroom — without distractions or interruptions. Above all, listen and empathize.
Know that options are out there
Most couples do not realize that there may be possible solutions to restoring sexual function after prostate cancer treatment. From pills, to external devises, injections and surgical procedures, there are solutions for nearly everyone. With persistence, a little humor, open discussion, and medical support, couples may reclaim sexual function once again.
Seek counsel from a professional
For some couples, working through the barriers to their sexual intimacy can be stressful and overwhelming. Don’t be afraid to seek professional help. You may feel uncomfortable with the idea of talking about these private matters with outsiders. But know that there are expert counselors highly skilled in engaging you and your partner in a discussion about these sensitive issues, in addition to physicians who specialize in restoring sexual function.
You’re not alone
There’s no need to suffer in silence. Many couples must navigate intimacy issues in the face of prostate cancer, and there are a number of resources available to help make that easier. To access resources offered by Us TOO International Prostate Cancer Education and Support Network, visit ustoo.org. There are pages on Sexual Health and Intimacy (at www.ustoo.org/intimacy) and Incontinence (at www.ustoo.org/incontinence) and a Prostate Cancer Pathways page (at www.ustoo.org/prostate_cancer_pathways) that contain information about educational events on this topic and others that are helpful for couples dealing with prostate cancer.