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Planning Retirement Online

Relationships - 40

It could be you....   

Maggi Stamp, LaterLife's Relationship Counsellor

Every month Maggi Stamp, a qualified and experienced relationship counsellor for Relate and in private practice, writes about some of the emotional challenges we meet in later life.

For reasons of confidentiality Maggi never writes about a particular person's problems unless you have sent one in to be answered, but all her examples are based on problems raised by clients, family and friends over the years.  

You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

Cancer has destroyed my sex life

’A’ writes:

I am 62 years old and had a radical vulvectomy op. seven years ago because of cancer. As a result am unable to have intercourse. My husband was very supportive and life went on, but I was not told how this would effect my life.
I lost all emotional feeling, so we began sleeping apart.

When I discovered my husband was seeing someone else, he said he could handle the lack of intimacy but not the not the lack of emotion.

We were married for 35 years and we separated. I’ve been on my own since October 03 but I can’t handle feeling so lonely. Although I have two sons and a daughter and four grandchildren they have their own lives.

I`m now looking for friends, female or male, for friendship.

Maggi replies:

Thank you for telling me of your situation.

Cancer can deal us such cruel blows though I am pleased to see the operation was as long as 7 years ago. But the nature of your operation, the removal of an external part of the female sexual organs, has had a profound impact on your life both physically and emotionally, breaking apart a good and supportive marriage of 35 years. I am so sorry to hear that, with the best intentions, you and your husband were unable to withstand the changes imposed upon you both.

One of the cruellest things for you was not to have been warned of the possible/ likely effects of such radical surgery. Such operations often have a deep emotional effect on a patient and care needs to be taken to help people recover and adjust to the great changes likely to follow in emotional state, relationships or lifestyle.

Given the right kind of preparation, these changes can be met without shock and dealt with rather than denied or swept under the carpet in the hope that ‘it will all sort itself out in the end’.

Of course your children have their own lives and you are loathe to worry them. I recall my own parents saying the same thing when they occasionally spilled the beans about an illness or other kind of difficulty they had faced, leaving me ignorant of their struggle. I felt hurt that they had chosen not to involve me and that they had made the decision to let me ‘get on with my own busy life’. They saw this as helping me, I saw it as being excluded.

Humans worry – it is sign of loving. We care about our nearest and dearest because they mean a very great deal to us. We want them to be healthy and happy and try to help if they are not. Most of us prefer to know when things are not going well for a member of our family. Being able to voice some of our concerns is a two-way loving exchange, the listener feels loved and trusted with this information and the talker feels loved because they are being listened to by someone close.

You say all emotions stopped after the operation. I wonder if this is due to the deep trauma of the whole process – finding and diagnosing the cancer, the operation and then the struggle to recover, the break-up of your marriage and its aftermath. Deep trauma can cause people to just shut down. After all, if you don’t allow yourself to feel then you can’t be hurt any more - so the unconscious reasoning goes. It would still be very helpful for you to find a counsellor to talk all of this through with.

In the meantime, I am heartened to hear you are actively seeking friendship to ease your loneliness. It takes great courage to face all that you have done and to reach that decision. Admitting to the loneliness and deciding to take action can be a turning point for you.

You could have a three-point action plan:

1. Talk your problems through with your children – this doesn’t have to be a total spilling of the beans if that is not your style, but I’m sure they will be able to be more supportive in their own ways if they are clearer about what worries you

2. Find a counsellor to support you through this difficult and painful time. Counselling could help you process all that has happened, help you with the inevitable grief and find a way to move on positively in a stronger more optimistic way

3. Look for ways of finding new friends and new activities that can bring new contacts. There are many people who have or wish for friendship without the pressure of a sexual aspect.

Here’s to good health and good friends in your future.

Other couples may have lost the sexual side of their relationship following medical interventions. The effect of treatment for prostate cancer is one such example.

Many doctors in Europe regard the use of drugs and surgery as a last resort when they can cause impotence. Where appropriate, their treatment of choice is more likely to be herbal or nutritional. This avoids the side effects of medication such as reduced sex drive, impotence, ejaculation disorders, loss of sexual sensation, weakened bladder and tender or enlarged breasts. They may prescribe the herbal extract Saw Palmetto, zinc, ginseng and several other natural remedies first for prostate cancer.

Reduced sex drive, weakened bladder or impotence are very difficult thing to come to terms with for many men and their partners. Feelings of no longer being ‘manly’, or ‘fully masculine’ are common in men, and women can interpret the lack of activity as not being wanted or attractive any more.

Most hospitals will offer counselling support to those who face this traumatic change to their lives and it is important for couples to talk with each other about the effects it is having on their relationship, which may have been a sexually active one for many years.

Of course there are also those who are not threatened by the loss of that part of their relationship at all – it might even be welcomed as a good excuse to stop! They are able to sublimate or replace the missing sexual activity with other ways of being close and intimate. They may have stopped making love already and so it is of no consequence to them. For some, the relief of being able to be treated for cancer and have it cleared or controlled long-term is compensation for the loss of physical intimacy.

Nowadays a lot of people expect to stay sexually active for most of their life. This differs from the expectation of many who are now in their seventies and eighties. In their early life it was not considered proper to talk of sex explicitly, let alone expect to be having a sexual relationship after middle age. That difference plays a part in the way we deal with such changes in our relationships and in the way medical care and psychological support is structured and offered.

If you are facing treatment, think carefully about your relationship

  • What makes it strong?

  • What will each of you need in the way of help and sensitive support?

  • Where is that support?

Ask doctors about implications of treatment

  • Enquire about the long-term physical and emotional effects of the treatment you are advised to undergo.

  • What proportion of patients are affected in this way?

  • Ask what alternative there are.

  • If your doctor doesn’t know the answers to any of your questions, ask that the information be found and search books and the internet yourself so that you can make more informed decisions and be better prepared.




You can write to Maggi at for her to respond in the column.

To view previous articles in this series - see the Relationship Counselling Index page



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