Living With Cancer: Seeking Intimacy

A week or so after a procedure, I found a sticker on my body. Not a Disney sticker or a Dora the Explorer sticker, put there maybe by a godchild or nephew, but a 1 1/4-by-1-inch white rectangle with a steel nipple at the center.

What does it say about alienation from the body that I only found this sticker a week after an operation that worked or did not work, but that in any case I cannot remember or distinguish from all the other hospital events?

I consider this sticker as the women in my cancer support group discuss intimacy over lunch in a restaurant.

Beautiful Judy flushes while admitting that she knows she is desirable, despite the weight loss caused by radiation. But what she wants to feel is her own desire welling up. The problem is, desire puts her back in touch with her body and her body brings her back to fears about a recurrence. Will lovemaking always tether her to dread of mortality?

But Sarah worries about her spouse’s desires. Like her, he is young and vigorous, and he has been patient for more than a year now. Except for the port barely visible on her chest, her body in remission feels resilient. She works out every day. Though a self-professed “prude from Nebraska,” she has started reading “Fifty Shades of Grey.” “Is it working?” someone asks. Well, she’s only on page 100-something, so she remains hopeful that it will heat up.

I remain silent as Alison explains that her husband treats her like a china doll. Wary after her numerous operations, he’s protective of her vulnerability. Diane, on targeted therapy, confides that she was not hurt so much as perplexed after sex when her partner found her “reconfigured.” He is, she adds by way of explanation, a lawyer.

I’m trying to decode the emotional valence of his remark, though I’m still brooding on the purposes the nurses must have had in mind when they affixed the sticker to my body. Probably there were many others, and there was a purpose, and it must have served them well. Still, they forgot to take this one off the middle of my back, right between my shoulder blades in a place I could barely reach.

Patricia, pushing back the unruly curls of her blond wig, cracks us up with the lesson she draws from a younger man who found unusual ways to dramatize his intense crush on her. The “juiciness” of the infatuation — though nothing happened — leads her to believe that sex in the mind might be the way to go.

Ever the academic, I mention that Joni Rodgers corroborates this idea in the most explicit description I have found of lovemaking during chemotherapy. In her memoir “Bald in the Land of Big Hair,” the author mentions the torrid sex scenes she managed to produce in fiction. In real life, though, sex made her smell and taste (on herself and on her partner) the poison being pumped into her: “It grieved me greatly,” she wisecracks, “that my love canal was now more like Love Canal.”

But I am thinking of my beloved husband. And the sticker that had been on my body for a week, though I never knew and my husband never knew it was there. He is 17 years older than I. Or that’s how I thought of it when we met long ago, decided to live together and to cherish each other, as we still do every minute, every second of this very day today, for which I am abundantly grateful. Now, because cancer and its treatments have accelerated my aging, the difference in our years has been erased.

That evening, my husband tried to comfort me. “Let’s take a look-see, Missy,” he said, doing a caricature of the old man he in fact now is to the spoof of the old lady I in fact have become. We did that. We took a look-see. We didn’t find anything else.

By Susan Gubar
The New York Times
June 20, 2013

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