Prostate cancer is a woman’s problem. What? How can that be, since women are not born with a prostate gland. At least, not the way men are.
Women do, in fact, have two small tissue structures called Skene’s glands, positioned on either side of the urethra close to where urine exits the body. Scientists liken them to a “female prostate” because during sexual arousal they secrete a fluid that acts as a lubricant for penetration, and may also have antimicrobial properties to help avoid urinary tract infections. However, you’ll probably never hear about Skene’s gland cancer because it’s extremely rare.
Unfortunately, prostate cancer (PCa) is definitely not rare. It’s estimated that nearly 13% of men will be diagnosed with PCa, which is the second most common male cancer after skin cancer. It accounts for 14% of all new cancer cases in the U.S. Since it’s a man’s disease, how it is a woman’s problem? The answer lies in love.
When a woman is in a committed, loving relationship with a man, what affects him also affects her. After the initial shock of a diagnosis, she is likely to experience a wide range of powerful feelings which may or may not echo her man’s emotions. She will have her own version of feelings like:
- Fear – Will he die?
- Anxiety and stress – How will we manage if it affects his job?
- Disbelief – How did this happen?
- Anger and frustration – I told him he was way overdue for a physical!
- Compelling need or desire to help – I’ll come to every appointment, take notes, arrange schedules, do research, etc.
- Impatience – Why is he taking so long to make a decision?
- Worry – How will this affect the kids? What will it do to our sex life?
Every couple evolves their own style of intimacy, fighting, roles and role reversals. The PCa journey will amplify the dynamics between partners, with potential to bring out both the best and worst in each of you. A cancer diagnosis opens up new, unfamiliar territory.
A few guidelines
To get you started, here are suggested guidelines for women partners of PCa patients that you can use (or modify or disregard if they don’t fit your situation). They are not intended as rules, but they are ideas gathered from the experiences of many couples who have already walked the walk and talked the talk:
- Don’t make assumptions that you know what he needs, or private decisions to be “helpful.” Ask questions, reflect back what you think he’s saying, and come to agreements. For instance,
patient organizations recommend that a spouse/partner accompany the patient to appointments, take notes, etc. Check with your man to learn if that’s what he wants. If he changes his mind further down the line, be understanding and flexible.
- He might not be aware of everything he’s feeling, and it’s hard for some guys to talk about what’s going on within them. If this describes your partner’s general approach, lower your expectations. Also, don’t cork up your own feelings, as that won’t do either of you good. If he’s not the world’s best listener, turn to a trusted friend to be a sounding board to air your own feelings.
- Focus on the positive. Discuss each other’s strengths in a crisis by recalling past challenges in which you worked well together (chances are, this isn’t your first shared anxiety rodeo). How can you utilize past teamwork in this situation?
- Do your own research (best doctors, treatment options, side effect risks, etc.). You may learn a lot—which might also help you stay calm, since knowledge is power—but get his permission before “volunteering” your newly acquired information. In case he’s feeling overwhelmed, think about The Law of Unintended Consequences before you give in to the temptation to think you know what’s in his best interests.
- Take care of yourself. Make sure your meals are balanced and nutritious; plan self-care time that works for you (Working out? Indulging in a manicure? Girlfriend get-togethers? Reading a good book? Staying present in the moment whether it’s work or home?) You won’t be helpful to either/both of you if you’re fraying at the edges.
- Keep a broad perspective. Most PCa cases are diagnosed when they are at an early stage, and many low-risk cancers appear to never become aggressive. PCa is highly treatable when caught early, and newer minimally invasive treatments have lower side effect risks than ever before.
- Encourage him to attend a support group (and go with him, if he’s open to that). If that’s not his style—or there are COVID considerations—there are online forums, but remember that these can also contain distortion and misinformation. In any case, there is a whole world of happy couples who survived PCa and enjoy high quality of life. If you can tap into that world, it’s very inspiring and uplifting.
- Don’t lose your sense of humor. Laughter is good for keeping spirits lifted and easing tensions.
At our Center, if a patient is in a committed partnership, almost universally his wife/partner comes in with him. We witness the love, caring and helpfulness, and we recognize that the recipe contains unique ingredients for each couple. We have seen how mutual support benefits both members of the couple, and we believe that it’s a key factor in best outcomes. Please don’t hesitate to contact us if we can be of help. Best wishes for a successful PCa journey for both of you.