Shortly after our book was published we started receiving invitations to speak to prostate cancer support groups.1 We had a format of telling our story as a couple, and then meeting in small groups; Keith with the men and me the women. It didn’t take long, however, before we realized we needed to offer an additional session of reversing the genders—with Keith meeting with the women and me with the men.
As Keith and I compared notes after our sessions, we were not surprised by the differences between the two groups. The women talked about how resistant their partners were in trying to reestablish intimacy. Like Keith in the early stages of his treatment, these men didn’t want to “start something they couldn’t finish”—they didn’t have a frame of reference for making love without intercourse, so it made more sense to them to just avoid intimacy altogether. The women, like me, tried to assure their partners that not having intercourse didn’t mean an end to intimacy. They missed being held, caressed, and touched intimately, and in many cases expressed a desire to try to achieve arousal. The men resisted for various reasons, including embarrassment, shame, fear of failure, and a misunderstanding of how women define intimacy.
Keith was a compassionate and understanding listener to the women in the sessions he led. I, on the other hand, took on the role of educator and confidant. To counter the shame these men felt about their condition, I spoke with openness, confidence and assurance. I exposed the identical mismatch of expectations Keith and I had experienced after his surgery, as was occurring in the men’s situations. Keith, too, had equated intercourse with intimacy and thus felt incapable of satisfying me—while I had felt rejected, unattractive, and unloved. I reminded the men that women need to be embraced, assured verbally they are loved and beautiful, and told they are desired. The words and attention are important and needed.
I confessed to the men that it took Keith and me many arguments, adjustments and false starts before we figured out how to be intimate with each other again. For us, it was a key realization to learn Keith was still able to arouse me and bring me to orgasm without intercourse. And the same was true for Keith: he, too, could experience orgasm without achieving an erection.2
This may not sound romantic or ‘intimate’ in the traditional definition. But in reality, satisfying each other—separately, together, and with the intention of giving pleasure—is in many ways the ultimate expression of love.
1 This was a logical request of course because Keith’s impotence was the result of prostate cancer. By the second year we started getting requests from various other support groups. It became apparent the issue of intimacy affected nearly everyone who was treated for cancer—especially breast cancer victims.
2 This is a fact we discuss in our book that few men realize—orgasm is possible without an erection.