Grace Period: a novel about living with prostate cancer


Grace Period is a novel about living with prostate cancer by Gerald Haslam. Although fiction, the author does indeed have prostate cancer. Though the details of his protagonist’s life don’t match his own, Haslam gives solid medical information about treatments for the disease, and what it’s like to go through daily life living with this cancer.

Grace Period’s progagonist falls in love with a breast cancer survivor, and many of the highlights of this engrossing novel deal with the relationship between Marty and Miranda. Although the book’s plot does not revolve around sex, Haslam treats his characters’ sexual relationship with directness and sensitivity. Marty uses a pump because he cannot get “natural” erections, and his doctor encourages him to explore alternatives: “Guys tend to overestimate hard-ons. You’ve got a tongue, toes, fingers, and ingenuity.”

Marty learns that he can have “dry orgasms”: “It hadn’t felt quite as good as the old fuild ejaculation — or at least I didn’t think it had — but it sure felt better than anything else I could think of.”

“Once you’re in the cancer world, everything’s iffy,” Miranda tells Marty. “Live for the moment, since that may be all you have.”

That sounds like good advice whether we’re living “in the cancer world” or not. It’s up to us to make the most of the cards life deals us. Near the end of the book, Marty grins and tells Miranda, “I’m standing here wearing a damp diaper; I haven’t had a natural erection in years; my body is drooping and my face is sagging; I’m driving the wrong way on one-way streets. And I’m a happy guy.”

Many thanks to Gerald Haslam for a novel full of truths, centered around a relationship that touched me deeply.

Update: I just heard from Gerald Haslam, who wants to contribute this to our discussion:

Joan:

Thanks for your kind words about “Grace Period.”

Like Marty in the novel, I think that making love as long as one can and as well as one can represents life refusing give in to death or infirmity.

There is no proper age for it, there is only the desire, the need, the ability (along with, one hopes, a little creativity). Although my own life is rather different than his, my cancer isn’t and neither is my attitude or my good fortune at enjoying the comfort of a loving relationship. I’m delighted to learn that you do, too.

All the best, Gerry

Aging and Sexuality: Recommended Books for Geriatric Intimacy

In Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex after Sixty, I recommended an assortment of helpful books for women and men interested in having great sex and geriatric intimacy. I thought it would be useful to reprint this resource here. I’ll divide the books by category, and I’ll add new books that have crossed my path since Better Than I Ever Expected was published. Let me know about a special book you’ve enjoyed that belongs here. (Keep checking back — this list is just the beginning!)

I’ve included links to these books on Amazon.com for your convenience and to read more customer reviews, although I encourage you to purchase from your local independent bookstore when possible.

And of course, if you don’t already have it, I hope you’ll read Better Than I Ever Expected: Straight Talk about Sex After Sixty! Order a personally autographed copy directly from the author here, or order from Amazon here.

Better Than Ever: Love and Sex at Midlife by Bernie Zilbergeld, Ph.D., (Crown, 2005). A guide to sexual enjoyment in the second half of life, including overcoming health challenges and staying sexy in long-term relationships, based on 145 interviews with men and women ages 45 to 87. This is an excellent book from the male point of view. Unfortunately, Zilbergeld died before this book could be published. We are fortunate to have his last work.

Dr. Ruth’s Sex After 50: Revving Up Your Romance, Passion & Excitement! by Dr. Ruth Westheimer (Quill Driver, 2005). Smart advice from Dr. Ruth about health issues, physical changes, and keeping your sex life with your partner interesting and fun, with stories of real couples.

The New Love and Sex After 60 by Robert N. Butler and Myrna I. Lewis (Ballantine, 2002). A geriatric physician and a psychotherapist discuss how sexuality is affected by physical aging changes, medical conditions, medications, emotional issues, and relationship changes. Rather dry writing style, but it covers the ground.

Sex Over 50 by Joel D. Block, Ph.D, with Susan Crain Bakos (Parker, 1999). Frank self-help book aimed mostly at couples, with tips (“sizzlers”) galore for recapturing romance and passion and dealing with the sexual challenges of midlife and older, plus anecdotes of geriatric intimacy.

Still Doing It: Men & Women over 60 write about their sexuality, ed. Joani Blank (Down There Press, 2000) Real people 60-plus to 80-plus tell bluntly and in graphic detail (and graphic language) what they do and what they like, including an array of sexual styles.

Rescue Me, He’s Wearing a Moose Hat: And 40 Other Dates After 50 by Sherry Halperin (Seal Press, 2005). Fifty-plus widow’s adventures with online dating mismatches. Fabulously funny and often poignant. With dating catastrophes like these, single life doesn’t look so bad.

Revolution in the Garden: The Memoirs of the Garden Keeper by Dell Williams and Lynn Vannucci, autobiography of founder of Eve’s Garden, New York women’s sex shop, written at age eighty-two. Her reminiscences include losing her virginity in date rape in 1940 and attending Betty Dodson’s masturbation workshop in 1970.

A Round-Heeled Woman: My Late-Life Adventures in Sex and Romance by Jane Juska (Villard, 2003). Sixty-six-year-old woman overcomes a restrictive sexual upbringing and places personal ad: “I would like to have a lot of sex with a man I like.” She gets plenty of responses and trysts, but the results mostly aren’t very satisfying.

Still Sexy After All These Years? The 9 Unspoken Truth about Women’s Desire Beyond 50 by Leah Kliger and Deborah Nedelman (Perigee/Penguin, 2006). Empowering self-help guide to understanding your changing sexual desire after fifty, with excerpts from interviews.

Unaccompanied Women: Late-Life Adventures in Love, Sex, and Real Estate
by Jane Juska (Villard, 2006)). Juska chronicles how her life, dating and otherwise, has changed since publication of Round-Heeled Woman. If you enjoyed RHW, you’ll enjoy this one, too.

All Night Long: How to Make Love to a Man Over 50 by Barbara Keesling, Ph.D. (Harper Collins, 2000). A sex therapist and former sex surrogate explains what a woman should understand about an aging man’s sexuality, his “temperamental penis,” and how to keep the focus on “lovemaking, not erections–partnership, not performance.” Practical, frank, and helpful.

Great Sex: A Man’s Guide to the Secrets of Total-Body Sex by Michael Castleman (Rodale, 2004). Castleman writes with warmth and honesty about issues that concern men at any age: their own and their partner’s sexuality and pleasure. An excellent book for the man in your life.

Intimacy with Impotence: the Couple’s Guide to Better Sex after Prostate Disease by Ralph & Barbara Alterowitz (Da Capo/ Lifelong Books, 2004). A frank, practical guidebook to satisfying, sensual intimacy whether or not the male partner can have erections. An array of self-help strategies, from communication and creativity to medical therapies.

I hope this helps you to age vibrantly and your senior sex life! Geriatric intimacy is something to be celebrated.

Reclaiming Sexuality after Cancer

Lynn, age 50+, phoned to order several of my books and she told me her story of trying to reclaim her sexuality after cancer. I encouraged Lynn to share her story with you here:

I was diagnosed with cancer in my mid 30’s and was given a grim prognosis of 3-5 years to live. Thanks to medical research trials and multiple treatments, I have survived over 3 times that long. Through the years I have met other cancer survivors who are struggling to deal with their questions about sexuality after cancer.

Part of my cancer treatment was a stem cell transplant that involved both chemotherapy and radiation which put me into premature menopause. I had a medical condition which made me susceptible to blood clots, so hormone replacement in any form was not an option.

The resulting sexual problems were sudden and unexpected and left me with feelings of grief and loss that were hard to put into words. At times I felt like “You should just be thankful to be alive,” but I wasn’t ready to give up my sexuality.

I began to search for information. One cancer newsletter’s “Ask the Doctor” column confirmed that many readers had asked the same questions about sexual problems following this particular treatment. The American Cancer Society has a publication titled, “Sexuality and Cancer.” Both of these resources mentioned that there are many women who cannot take hormone replacement therapy and suggested that people should discuss “options for facilitating sexuality” with their doctors.

When I asked my oncologist for help, he was too embarrassed to talk about sexual problems and practically ran out of the exam room. He could have at least referred me to another medical resource. Although we passed the turn of the century, some medical providers are still in the “dark ages” when it comes to addressing the sexual problems of cancer survivors.

I went to a cancer survivor’s conference at a large medical center in another city. One of the sessions was about cancer and sexuality. I sat next to a woman who had been through treatment identical to mine and also had the same blood clotting disorder which ruled out HRT. We were both blessed with partners that did not walk out the door when the cancer diagnosis arrived, but we missed the giving involved in making love to our partner and meeting their needs for intimacy as much as the pleasure we had derived from it ourselves.

Some people came to the group session accompanied by their partners – the standard response from the partner without cancer was “I’m just glad my partner is alive,” but the cancer survivors were not content with that. They went on to express their deep emotions and struggles. “First I was diagnosed, then I had treatment – I’m thankful I survived, but I am still working through the loss of my sexuality.”

The oncology professional who was the group facilitator listened, and could see that this was an important subject that needed to be given more attention in the future. I left feeling like at last we were heard, but I was still lacking practical information and resources.

I am now over 50 and my cancer is in a durable remission, but I was beginning to believe that I was probably “too old” to be hopeful about ever being sexually active again. I lacked the courage to ask another Dr. or medical professional for help to address sexual problems.

I’m so glad I found your blog – I read the post “a man asks about sex after prostate cancer” and was impressed by the personal interest you took in responding to his questions.

I went to your website to order your book and read, “Joy isn’t age-bound. Neither is sexuality or fitness.” Discovering that you have also faced challenges as a result of two car accidents and refused to give up was an encouragement to me. Your statement, “I had to get back to having a life”, really sums up where I am at currently. Your story inspired me with a “spark of hope” and I also found the resources that I need to begin working on regaining physical fitness and sexual function!

Lynn, thank you for sharing your experience and your thoughts. When you told me about your oncologist bolting out of the room when you asked about sexuality, I was shocked and outraged. Sexuality and intimacy are so much a part of what binds us to our partner and makes us fully human. How can doctors not understand this or help us reclaim that vital part of our being when we ask for help?

I know doctors get very little training in sexuality, and I’ve written about this here. Fortunately, there are some wonderful sex therapists and sex educators who are doing a great job in this arena, and I encourage you to find one of these in your area.

I am so happy that you survived cancer, and I wish you the best success reclaiming the joy of your sexuality. Please keep us posted about what you do and what you learn.

Best,

— Joan

A man asks about sex after prostate cancer

Billybob, 62, has written several times, always willing to share his thoughts and experiences to help both men and women talk more freely about the special challenges of sex after 60. In his case, these challenges include recovering from divorce, re-entering the dating scene, and living with prostate cancer. I just received this question from him:

Since my cancer treatments I still want sex but I have an erection problem that Viagra seems not to work to well. What would a lady think of me if I chose to use a strap on device? Or do you know of alternatives? And If I were to use a strap on how would I break or tell such an idea to a lady?

I wrote this to Billybob:

If you read the chapter of Better Than I Ever Expected titled “When You or Your Partner Can’t,” you’ll see that women are very happy with fingers, tongue, vibrator, and cuddling when their partner can’t have an erection. I don’t think many women would appreciate a strap-on device, though I suggest you talk about it ahead and let her know you’re willing if she’d like it. My suggestion: level with her about your situation as soon as the intimacy gets past kissing, and see what she’d like and — please! — also tell her what would make you feel satisfied. Let me know how this works for you.

What do the rest of you think?

I read two good books on this topic, which I mentioned in Better Than I Ever Expected and which you can order from Amazon by clicking on the links:

Intimacy with Impotence: the Couple’s Guide to Better Sex after Prostate Disease by Ralph & Barbara Alterowitz (Da Capo/ Lifelong Books, 2004). A frank, practical guidebook to satisfying, sensual intimacy whether or not the male partner can have erections. An array of self-help strategies, from communication and creativity to medical therapies.

Making Love Again: Hope for Couples Facing Loss of Sexual Intimacy by Virginia and Keith Laken (Ant Hill Press, 2002). Candid personal narrative by Keith Laken, prostate cancer survivor facing impotence, and his wife, including fears, arguments, resolutions, setbacks, and a new definition of intimacy.

— Joan