July 07, 2023

Cancer and Pillow Talk: A Guy’s Perspective


“If I had a message to the men of the world who have rejected women with cancer it would be f*** you! No. You’re an idiot. No you’re just selfish. It’s so pathetic- do these men not think that they could get sick some day too? It is just bad karma.”

These words spouted from Melissa Sorenson’s mouth, to my tape recorder, to the pages of my book Everything Changes. I high-five her all the way. But it’s not just a message to men. Plenty of women have rejected guys with cancer too.

Diagnosed with rectal cancer at 41, James Buchanan writes about cancer and dating. Gas eruptions on a coffee date; a woman who was fine with cancer but not his colostomy bag; and finally Lesleigh, who was up for both. This is a great description of their first time in bed:

“We undressed and climbed into her bed, but cancer had one more ‘f*** you’ in store for me. Hidden beneath the pain of the radiation and surgery and the sickness of chemo was damage to the nerves necessary to achieve an erection. My body and mind wanted her frantically; my soul silently screamed in embarrassment and anguish.

As I would learn later, these difficulties were an on-again-off-again problem that could be cured with a pill when necessary. But for that night, I held her in quiet sorrow. I was convinced that my life would never be whole again, that this relationship was nothing more than a promising meal about to be taken away from a starving man.

‘I’m sorry,’ I said. ‘Is it me?,’ she asked. ‘No, not at all, never,’ I replied and then feebly described how my treatment had been so focused on this one area of my body that it was inevitable it would have obliterated the anatomy required to make love to her. Lesleigh rested quietly next me, naked, beautiful and sexy, and my newfound impotence burned hotter than anything I had ever felt in my life. Then she turned and kissed me. I wrapped my arms around her as she curled into my body and we lay together, naked and sad.

Lesleigh and I worked through my cancer and physical infirmities, and as we have progressed and fallen in love we have brought our kids together and established amongst all of this complexity a family based on a healthy and loving relationship. At no point have I doubted Lesleigh’s love for me nor my love for her.”

I love James’ story not just because he and Lesleigh got married in the end, but because it is such a good example of why great communication really matters.

I hear so many cancer dating horror stories. Do you have stories about people who are loving, accepting, communicative? What worked and didn’t work for you with cancer and dating?

Check out the sordid details of my dating life, including a very happy ending, in my book Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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  1. Lori Says:
    July 7th, 2009 at 6:07 PM

    Beautiful post, Kairol. I don’t have any stories for you right now (am overwhelmed with catch up), but want to refer you to Dana Jennings’s piece in the NY Times today, in case you didn’t see it. He addresses his own “**** you” sexual issues, and does so with breathtaking eloquence. http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/07/07/cancers-recovery-longer-than-you-think/
    blogging at CarePages.com: what helps. what hurts. what heals. see http://LoriHope.com/blog

  2. anonymous Says:
    July 8th, 2009 at 12:06 AM

    My wife has cancer and communication is our way of getting through the hard times that it can involve. I’ve always found that the key is to listen and be understanding, rather than simply claiming that “everything is going to be okay.”

    Our sex life has plummeted since cancer, but I know that arguing about it won’t change it. Outside of this one area, our relationship is perfect, so I just accept it.

  3. Cathy Bueti Says:
    July 8th, 2009 at 6:44 AM

    As a young widow I dated during my cancer treatment and the majority of the guys couldn’t handle what I was going through or handled it badly. My worst story is about the guy I was dating when I had my surgery. I spent a week in the hospital recovering from a mastectomy with reconstruction using my belly fat to make the new boob. I had major scars across my belly and around my boob which was sans a nipple. He never so much as called or came to visit when I was in the hospital and when he came to visit me a few days after I was home I wanted to discuss with him what my surgery meant for our sex life. His response to it was “Don’t worry I’ll masturbate” I cried and he left. Needless to say I never saw him again and was practically curled up in a ball on the floor wondering if anyone would be able to see past my broken scarred body to the person I was inside.
    The happy beginning comes at the end of my story when I met my husband during my treatments. I was open with him right away and he seemed to accept everything about me. When I showed him my scars and new boob for the first time I was terrified. I feared he would run screaming from me after what had happened with guys before him. Instead he was amazingly accepting of me, my body, and was able to connect with my mind. I made sure to be open with him about how it felt when he touched me, what felt good, and what was uncomfortable or that I couldn’t feel from numbness etc…I agree that communication is so important. Even today when my sex drive plummets from the menopause I am in now courtesy of cancer treatment I find that we need to talk about it or it will cause problems.

    In my book “Breastless in the City” I share all of my dating stories during my breast cancer treatment. Finding love is hard enough, add cancer to the mix and it is a whole new ball of wax!

    Great blog Kairol, I really liked reading James’ story….so open and honest.

  4. Sueann Mark Says:
    July 8th, 2009 at 6:56 PM

    Another great post Kairol! It may be uncomfortable to talk about these things at first, but open communication is the key to a great sex life, especially when cancer is in the mix. That and embracing sexuality beyond intercourse. Personally, I prefer to be sexual in as many ways a possible. I’m not interested in limiting my sexual expression just because I have a bionic boob!

  5. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 9th, 2009 at 1:01 AM

    It is great to read everyone’s comments. Open communication seems to be the theme. I am a fairly blunt person so communication about my wants, feelings, and needs comes pretty easily for me. I’m wondering what it is like for other people though, and if it was challenging, how you convinced yourself to break through into talking about the hard stuff.

  6. Anonymous Says:
    July 10th, 2009 at 12:03 AM

    Why, precisely, would you want someone to stick around who had no interest in you? Yes yes, cancer is awful, bad, murderous, life changing. Most people aren’t saints. They won’t want to spend years, if not decades, as veritable slaves to the hospital routine, chemo treatments and side effects, and lifestyle upheavals that go with cancer. Who doesn’t want to have sex for a decade? Who wants to deal with the self-pitying martyr who can use the “but I have cancer!” excuse to get whatever she wants.

    Think I don’t know what it’s like? Think again.

  7. Stuart Says:
    July 10th, 2009 at 1:06 PM

    I lost my partner nearly two months ago to Lymphoma. He was diagnosed on May 28th…and died on May 28th one year later. In that year, we didn’t have sex once. We had intimacy…don’t get me wrong. But, the actual physical act of sex never happened again. Jason had a harder (no pun intended) time with this than I did. I was amazingly ok not doing that. There so much other stuff to do, to say, to think about, to deal with. Sex to me became so insignificant. Jason, though, felt that he was a failure in our relationship. He was afraid I would cut and run because he wasn’t able to give me what he thought I needed. But he did. He gave me love. He gave me intimacy beyond anything I could’ve ever dreamed.

  8. Kairol Rosenthal Says:
    July 10th, 2009 at 1:36 PM

    Stuart, The dynamic you described is one that I came across in interviews for my book where the cancer patient felt worse about not having sex than the supportive partner did. I wonder too what it might have been like for Jason to think about never having sex again before dying. Is that something you ever talked about?
    I just checked out your blog. Your relationship to Jason sounds beyond what words can describe, and yet you describe it so well. I ache for your loss right now. Check back on my blog for more guest posts from Charissa, an early 30-something whose husband Rick is in my book and died just a few months ago from lymphoma. The young adult cancer community provides too little support and conversation for young people whose partners have died. I want to change that. All my best to you, Kairol.

  9. Sage Says:
    July 21st, 2009 at 4:05 PM

    I am always moved by the honesty of persons walking through the cancer experience - from side effects to sexual effects - it never ceases to amaze me. As many of you have pointed out communication is key and there are some great tips on how to best communicate about your needs … and NO having needs does not mean that you are selfish OR insensitive… it means your human and cancer didn’t take that away from your or your partner. The National Cancer Institute shows a great format for communication that I often teach many of my patients - state a Fact, your Belief, Your Feeling and then an Action. For example “Ever since your cancer diagnosis we have not spent time to just be intimate -sex or not - (fact) and I believe it is because you are afraid I am going to expect sex (belief). It make me sad to think that we cancer has taken away some of our intimate time as well (feeling) and I would be happy if we could just have time to be naked together, or make out, or cuddle and watch a movie (or…) and if you initiated that when you felt up for it (action that your partner can take). Just a brief FYI…
    Kairol - you’re my girl…you know I love the work you do and am so grateful to you for your continued voice and strength in the young adult community.
    Sage (oncology counselor)

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