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Save Your Love Life After Prostate Cancer

Article date: February 9, 2006

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"We have realized that our intimate relationship is continually changing. This has been a wonderful thing that happened to us because we have continued to adapt to and accept the changes that have happened in our bodies."

 

Making love again after prostate cancer treatment takes a partnership dedicated to understanding and communication. Just ask Keith and Virginia Laken.

Their commitment to continued physical and emotional bonding -- despite the erectile dysfunction and incontinence that followed Keith's prostate cancer surgery -- has resulted in a richer, deeper, more intimate relationship than they could ever have imagined before cancer. And they've made it their mission to help other couples in the same situation find their way back to a successful romantic life. "Keith and I thought we had really good communication but we hadn't had to have this kind of communication about our intimacy," Virginia explained recently. "We so often equate intimate relationships with ability to have intercourse, and what we try to help couples understand is that intimacy is not totally equated with intercourse. Intimacy -- as we all know but don't usually put into practice -- can happen in many, many ways."

Sacrifice Your Sex Life?

When Keith was diagnosed in 1995, he was ready to choose a shorter life with no surgery over a longer one with a diminished sex life. He and Virginia had enjoyed a loving marriage of 28 years, and he was only 49. He balked at the potential side effect of impotence. Despite his reservations, Keith went ahead with radical prostatectomy. The surgery was successful, and after 7 weeks he returned to work. Both he and Virginia assumed that he would have a quick return to sexual functioning, too. No such luck. "Four months without sex made me begin to appreciate the integral role sex played in our marriage," said Virginia. "Making love was what we did to reconnect when things weren't going well and how we celebrated when they were. Without sex, we had felt isolated from each other." Five months after surgery, Keith started penile injections to help get an erection. Although the injections worked well, Keith and Virginia had to get used to the lack of spontaneity and face the reality of life-long impotence. Keith also struggled with a loss of physical desire that affected more than their lovemaking. He was unhappy, negative, and angry.

Overcoming Mental Barriers

Finally, Keith and Virginia decided to seek professional help. They consulted a psychologist who specialized in male sexual dysfunction. He assured them they were well on their way to recovery because they were talking to each other and sorting out their feelings together. The psychologist pointed out what they were doing right: They had realized that their love-making needs had changed — frequency had lessened and they had to become more creative. He encouraged them to keep making love by focusing on pleasure, not intercourse. He also helped Keith understand that his lack of desire was physical, not mental. He explained that a man in Keith's condition has to become more attentive to what his brain is saying versus what his body is saying. Keith and Virginia began and continue to approach lovemaking more deliberately with scheduled sex days. "We make sure our love making takes place, even though our bodies are not driving us to make love -- our minds are," said Virginia. "We realize that lovemaking is so important to our marriage that we set aside the time."

Accepting Physical Changes

It took them three years to reach that understanding. The difficulty of the journey prompted them to write a book, Making Love Again, which they published in 2001. They now speak to cancer survivors all across the country about their experience. "We were just so stunned at how this affected our relationship, and so much at a loss for finding resources to help us," Virginia said. "We had made this promise to each other that if we got through this we were going to tell our story because we were so hungry to hear other people's survivor stories." Their openness has served them well. More than 10 years after Keith's diagnosis and treatment, the Lakens' marriage is still thriving. "With persistence and redefining intimacy, you can have a wonderful relationship," said Keith, who remains cancer-free. "But keep touching, keep being intimate, keep making love, in whatever form love-making takes."