Maryann Karinch, co-author with Saketh Guntupalli, MD, of Sex and Cancer: Intimacy, Romance, and Love after Diagnosis and Treatment was on the brink of divorce when she was diagnosed with endometrial cancer. Three years later, she and her husband are still together.
One day in October 2014, I noticed a really slight, faint pink discharge. I knew that wasn’t normal for me, so I immediately made an appointment for an ob-gyn exam with our local doctor. His wife had actually died of a gynecologic cancer; when he called and said, "I have bad news," I really felt for him. That must have been really hard for him to have to call a woman and say this terrible thing. It kind of took a little bit of the shock off of me. I had endometrial cancer, or cancer of the lining of the uterus.
I had been fighting with my husband Jim. We had been together almost 19 years at that point. We had stopped listening to each other. When you start doing that, communication breaks down. You think you’re right, he thinks he’s right–really, nobody’s right. We had created a mess, and we weren’t doing the nice things every day you should be doing. When you stop doing those little things, it’s like you don’t love the person anymore.
After I got off the phone with my doctor, I went upstairs to Jim’s home office. "Well, I have cancer," I remember saying. Just like that. He looked at me with this really sincere look of concern. The way he said, "We’ll handle it," was empowering. "Yeah, we will!" I thought. From that moment, I just knew I was going to be okay. It was a big turnaround for Jim and me.
I live in Colorado, and my doctor said there was only one place to go: the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Center. He sounded so confident about referring me, I knew they would take good care of me. I made an appointment very quickly; you don’t mess with stuff like this! There were a number of doctors I could see there, but Dr. Guntupalli’s name and reputation resonated for me. I’m not sure why, but I knew I wanted him. Now, we’re good friends and we wrote a book together!
My cancer was in the early stages, but it was the kind that tends to progress quickly. The fact that I caught it very early was extremely good. If I had delayed, it could have been much more serious. The first step of my treatment was robotic surgery. Then I had three rounds of chemotherapy over three months, followed by six rounds of radiation over two weeks at another UC Medical facility. I keep going for my checkups, but I've been healthy ever since I finished radiation in February 2015.
Jim and I had gone to a few sessions with a couples counselor before I was diagnosed. She specialized in emotionally focused therapy. We were no longer going to therapy when we were faced with cancer, but we had started to work on a type of communication that was healthier. Cancer made us really focus on this new set of tools.
Frankly, if it weren’t for my diagnosis, we probably would have abandoned the techniques we learned in therapy and just split up. But because of the cancer, we started to listen better. We had a common point of focus. Cancer is an opportunity for two people to focus on a very serious issue and to handle it with every bit of strength that they have. It gave us an opportunity to be really powerfully together on something. We had a common goal, and that was healing.
Having a partner who is focused on your health is energizing. Even when you feel a little depressed about everything you’re going through, you think about your partner and you can feel them on your side–it can lift you out of the pits. He brought me chocolate and hot soup–two of my favorite things–during my hours-long chemotherapy sessions and sat with me the whole time. He made sure I felt cared for.
We developed a sense of humor about what we were facing. My radiation was done with brachytherapy–when the radioactive material is placed inside the body. Essentially, it was an irradiated dildo; that’s the most accurate description I can give you! One potential complication of the radiation was that the tissue of my vagina could die unless you “keep the channel open.” Jim and I were sitting there getting briefed on this, being told we could go home with an official, prescribed dildo. “Or,” the doctor said, “there’s another way you can do this… you can have sex four times a week.” By that time, we were once again mentally and emotionally on the same page. We looked at each other and said, “Okay! That doesn’t sound so bad!” We laughed, he grabbed my hand, and said, “Yeah, we’ll do the sex.”
We had to learn how to do it so it didn’t hurt, so we were doing it right–because it’s therapeutic–but it was also fun! I can think of a worse prescription than having sex four times a week. It really did help our relationship.
It also gave me some insights when I later started working on Sex and Cancer. For example, I had gone through the entire list of possibilities for lubrication. There are so many products out there, some of which are crap, and cancer patients really need the best lube you can find. People don’t talk about that stuff with their doctors. Nobody tells patients anything about which positions will feel good or won’t, or how to mix things up. I’d make discoveries reading Cosmo!
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Jim always looked at me with optimism, love, and acceptance. It didn’t matter how sick I looked or felt at the time. It was like he was looking at my soul, as somebody that he loved. I don’t mean to sugarcoat it, but in a way, cancer was an adventure. I would say cancer’s one of the best things that ever happened to our relationship. It’s one of the best things that ever happened to us. Seriously, it is. I thank God and my surgeon and my medical team for making sure I am alive to enjoy it!