These are words I heard this week when speaking to one of our supporters about the impact prostate cancer treatment has had on his relationship. What’s even more gut wrenching is that this is a feeling shared by so many men. Side effects such as incontinence and erection problems are physical but their effect on a man’s mind can also be very troubling. For some men, the whole concept of a sexual relationship is turned upside down. Talking about sex and your relationship after prostate cancer is vital. Now we have begun working with Relate to offer counselling sessions both face to face and online to men, couples or family members affected by prostate cancer.
I spoke to Lin Griffiths, a trained relationship counsellor at Relate, about why this type of counselling can make such a difference. “For many couples, when a cancer diagnosis is introduced they fight or take flight," she said. "You can either pretend it’s not happening or fight the dilemma head on. Fighting it head on can sometimes create a real unity and bring you closer together.” However one of the biggest issues can be opening up to your partner about these problems in the first place. Lin added: “A person with cancer may want to ignore it or be angry at the situation. They’re not even sure what or who they’re angry with. The world? Their genetics? Health professionals? But the partner can be on the end of that frustration, causing conflict and more unhappiness for the couple.” Lin feels that for men with prostate cancer, losing sexual function can be a trigger for this. “Their sex life can feel written off, like they’re never able to satisfy their partner. Men say: 'I’m no good, you may as well find someone else because I can’t be that person.' But it’s not what they want. If they haven’t expressed their inner thoughts, and keep it to themselves, that’s when depression can set in.”
When I spoke to a man who is using the Relate service, he echoed Lin’s thoughts. “I’d been to the impotency clinic and tried injections, pumps, you name it and nothing worked. Every time I tried something new and it didn’t work it was soul destroying. And I spiralled into depression and low self esteem. But I didn’t talk to my partner about it. We knew the side effects but we suffered in silence. I was still a young man in my late 40’s, and I struggled so much with intimacy. I worried if I started anything then I couldn’t fulfil. So we didn’t kiss or cuddle and didn’t want to highlight it.” The lack of that affection is something which Lin and others at Relate can focus on. “With sexual relationships it’s not all about penetration. Partners often forget that care and affection doesn’t have to lead to sex. Being intimate and showing love in creative ways, keeps the closeness that both partners may need through difficult times.”
I asked Lin about the kind of conversations they have on the relationship chat online and at counselling sessions. “We ask things like: ‘What’s changed since diagnosis?’ ‘How did you show affection?’ she said. “Ultimately what we’re getting to is 'what would you really like?' People aren’t good at being honest, because they feel they might upset their partner or be too demanding. But it’s all about what would make the biggest difference. What’s the greatest hope? What’s the greatest fear? This needs to be shared.” “Hopefully a new kind of relationship can emerge. There just needs to be an acceptance that it isn’t going to be the same but it can still be good.” The man I spoke to believes counselling can make a huge difference. “Don’t think you’re alright and try and deal with it. If you get the chance you should use relationship counselling. They understand where I’ve been and me and my partner can discuss things openly. We both want to get it sorted because I’m very much in love with her and I don’t want to lose that. But you must talk about it.”
And we’re making sure people can talk about things however they want and where they want with online relationship counselling. Lin says: “Research has shown us that in a digital chat you’ll tell more than you would when you physically see a therapist and in less time. There’s no embarrassment and it’s really rewarding to see people get help so quickly – the average live chat takes between 30 minutes and one hour.” We’re also doing more to improve our other services online. We’ve recently revamped our online community and made it possible for you to speak to specialist nurse through a live chat function on our website. It was hard to know what to say to the man I spoke to this week. But what I could say was, we can support you with counselling from Relate, our films on sex and prostate cancer, an online community of thousands and a Specialist Nurse at the end of the phone or online. Nobody should suffer in silence.