Getting back to intimacy

Rana Walker, a cancer survivor, poses with her boyfriend Kevin Savage at the Water Works Center on October 11, 2012 in Philadelphia. They met when she was a patient at University of Penn Hospital and have been together for three years. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Rana Walker, a cancer survivor, poses with her boyfriend Kevin Savage at the Water Works Center on October 11, 2012 in Philadelphia. They met when she was a patient at University of Penn Hospital and have been together for three years. ( DAVID MAIALETTI / Staff Photographer )
Posted: October 18, 2012

Rana Walker had recently finished breast cancer chemotherapy and was healing from a mastectomy and reconstructive surgery when she first laid eyes on him.

Kevin Savage was tall, good-looking, and 13 years younger. He had come to her aid when she was lost in the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania. As Savage, a telemetry technician, guided her through the long corridors, Walker, 45, never thought he was doing anything but being helpful.

At the time, dating wasn't exactly at the forefront of her mind. She'd lost most of her hair and was puffy from taking steroids and gaining weight. Her fingernails had fallen off, and that day, she was dressed in sweatpants and a baseball hat.

"I looked like a little, fat-faced boy," recalled Walker, a wellness coach for Diamond Cutter, which she founded in 1999 with her mother, Gerri H. Walker, a former city commerce director. "Every round of chemo I did, I gained five pounds."

Savage, though, saw past all that, glancing at her at one point and saying, "Oh, you're a cutie." After reaching the hospital door where Walker's mother was waiting, Savage offered Walker his phone number. She took it but had no plans to follow up because, she thought, "what if he wants to go on a date? I didn't know if I was up to that."

Eventually, though, she did call.

Their first conversation was brief. But during the second call, she told him about her health.

"I had to tell him, first of all, that I don't even have a nipple," Walker recalled recently. "I said, 'You are meeting me at a very vulnerable time in my life. I'm a breast cancer survivor. I had a mastectomy.' I told him about all the surgeries. I dumped it all on him at once. I believe in being forthright."

Their first real date was at Sabrina's Cafe, at 18th and Callowhill Streets, where they talked until the restaurant closed.

That was three years ago.

I met Kevin and Rana at a Christmas party not far from where Walker lives in Brewerytown. At a party full of single people, they stood out because they seemed genuinely happy to be together. I remember listening to them recount the story of how they met and feeling awed at their ability to connect when they did.

Their experience is probably unusual. Breast cancer has a way of setting back even the emotionally strong.

"Emotional scarring is one of the hardest side effects to overcome," said Gina M. Maisano in her book, Intimacy After Breast Cancer: Dealing with Your Body, Relationships and Sex. "It's tempting to want to withdraw into yourself. However, if you do that, it will only get harder and harder to climb out and find the help and hope that exists."

Women who may have never had self-esteem issues can struggle to regain their sexual mojo, especially if chemotherapy threw them into early or perimenopause.

So many issues tend to pop up after breast cancer: weight gain, scarring, loss of sexual desire, and emotional land mines to navigate. Walker was smart to show Savage her scars before they had sex.

"He never flinched," Walker said. "He tells me I'm sexy and he always seems very attracted to me."

Not that they didn't have challenges, such as the time when Walker was still on Tamoxifen and suffering from low libido.

"It caused problems because he felt, 'You are not attracted to me?' I'm going, 'No, it's the medication.' [Sex] was the last thing on my mind. The medication just totally takes that away."

Patty Brisben, chief executive of Pure Romance in Loveland, Ohio, which has a line of sexual-enhancement products for cancer survivors, preaches the gospel of communicating with your partner. She talked about a friend who thought that her husband hadn't really been supportive during her treatment.

As an example, the friend pointed out that her husband had been sleeping in a separate bed as she recuperated. Brisben had a hunch that her friend was misinterpreting her husband's actions and urged her to "have this conversation with him." The woman did and was astonished when her husband told her that he'd been sleeping in another bed as a courtesy to her.

He hadn't been sleeping well since her diagnosis and retreated to another bed to keep from disturbing her.

"We are just people, people who need to be open with one another," Brisben said.

Brisben told of another woman who found herself experiencing post-cancer vaginal dryness - until the day she joined her husband in his morning shower.

"I didn't ask any further questions," Brisben said, chuckling. "It's stepping out of your box."


Contact Jenice Armstrong at 215-854-2223, heyjen@phillynews.com, or follow her on Twitter @JeniceAmstrong. Read her blog at philly.com/HeyJen.

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