ask ammanda

Cancer has left me feeling alone

I am 29 years old with 3 young daughters, (7, 4, and 2) I was diagnosed with stage 3 triple negative breast cancer when my youngest daughter was 10 weeks old. Chemotherapy was brutal, I lost my hair, (eyebrows, lashes included.) I had a double mastectomy and lymph node clearance, as well as radiotherapy.

I lost a lot of myself in losing my hair and breasts. I gained 3 Stone from steroids, plus eating whatever helped take the metal taste away.

Not only have I lost my confidence but I'm left with neuropathy and chronic pain. I'm also left with a marriage in tatters and on the verge of collapse. The absolute last thing on my mind after just struggling through the days trying to make them normal for my girls, is sex.

My husband of course is still interested. So we disagree on that. Occasionally I will lay there and take it but I have zero enjoyment from it and also won't remove any clothing from my top half.

On top of this, I feel so alone. Nobody has been through this journey and my husband's empathy doesn't quite meet up with what I want. I feel so alone I may as well be alone. Please help.

Thank you for writing to me...

I understand why you feel so alone. A cancer diagnosis and the treatment that follows can be so isolating and like many, many people you’ve focused on trying to make things seem as normal as possible with the children and probably for lots of other things too. Sometimes having a sense of normality when things aren’t normal offers a strange sort of comfort. 

From your messages, I’m assuming you’ve completed the various treatments but anyone with any imagination at all will know that the legacy of cancer treatment is often as powerful a shadow as dealing with the disease itself. 

One of the biggest problems is the impact on the relationship and all that entails. From what you say, entirely understandably, your husband’s need for sex feels at complete odds with where you are right now. It feels uncaring, intrusive, and most of all, hurtful, because what you most want from him is to understand that a sexual relationship is way down the list of priorities at a time when you’re still trying to work out who you are in the wake of all that’s happened. And therein lies the problem.

I suspect that what your husband is trying to do is show you that he loves and cares about you and that he finds you desirable. You on the other hand and again based entirely on what you tell me, are not feeling desirable, that your body has undergone a seismic change that you’re still trying to come to terms with, and that quite frankly, if he cared he would see all this and leave alone. Does any of that ring a bell? 

One of the most difficult things that happens when very serious life events occur is that couples often find it difficult to talk things through. Assumptions about what may have helped at other tough times no longer provide comfort and before long, each partner is feeling alienated and that they’ve been left to go it alone without the care and compassion they had reasonably expected from each other. It feels like this is where the two of you are now. 

So, what to do? I think you both need the opportunity to explore what has happened and how it’s affected how you see each other and yourselves. I think you need professional help to do this with someone who has expertise in working with couples and families affected by cancer. I say this because now, I don’t think you can hear each other. This is such a common problem and although it may not seem likely, I can assure you that couples do work through situations like this.

In regards to sex, how that is both thought about and approached is likely to need a whole lot of conversation. Partners sometimes try and resurrect things to how they were before – it’s often a way of almost blanking out what’s happened and trying to get back to ‘normal’. But things aren’t normal so currently you’re both trying to work through a problem using old methods of communication that no longer work.  But here’s the thing. Couples can and do co-create and recreate sexual intimacy after life-changing events however they sometimes need help to do this.

I want to encourage you to contact a specialist counsellor whose job it would be to help both of you hear each other differently. That wouldn’t be to get you to have more sex or even be interested in it because currently, you’re both too ‘close’ to the issue to work on that collaboratively. No, I’d suggest that you work together on processing everything that’s happened in the last two years so that together you can potentially explore how things need to be between you now. And one more thing too. Your comment “Nobody has been through this journey” is quite correct, how could they have done because they’re not you, however, so many people have and are treading the cancer legacy journey and all that entails so touching base with others with a similar experience may be helpful.  

Do you have a question to ask Ammanda?

Ammanda Major is a sex and relationship therapist and our Head of Service Quality and Clinical Practice

If you have a relationship worry you would like some help with send a message to Ammanda.

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