10 January 2023

By Tim Baker

Prostate cancer is often referred to as a couples’ disease because it impacts the partner of the person with the diagnosis so acutely (if they have a partner).

Sadly, many relationships will come undone under the strain of a cancer diagnosis and that’s really no one’s fault. There are no longer two of you in the relationship, but a third dark and sinister presence. It requires remarkable resilience, excellent communication and endless patience and kindness for an intimate relationship to survive the tribulations of prostate cancer and its treatment. That’s not to say it can’t be done, but rather that it pays to seek support and counselling early on and be aware of the potholes along the way.

I say this having recently been through a painful separation, brought on almost entirely by the effects of hormone therapy, or Androgen Deprivation Therapy (ADT). The moodiness, the loss of libido and sexual function, the cycling anxieties of test results and resultant emotional roller coaster can leave both parties emotionally exhausted. A distance can easily open up that seems impossible to bridge.

While it has proven an unspeakably difficult time, I’ve been pleasantly surprised how well I have come through it eight months on. Friends and family have rallied. The ex and I remain on generally amicable terms and have committed to making the welfare of our two kids our True North. And my meditation practice and healthy lifestyle strategies have been invaluable for managing the stress and grief

Regrets? I’ve had a few and, but probably not too few to mention. If I had my time over, I’d do a few things differently.

  1. I’d be more mindful of the emotional impact of my diagnosis on my wife and kids.
  2. I’d have seen a men’s sexual health specialist early on and initiated a more open conversation about these challenges.
  3. I’d have scheduled more couple time. It’s tough to manage the endless rounds of medical appointments and tests and flagging energy levels, and still find time to lock in a regular date night. But you know what’s way tougher? Watching your marriage fall apart.
  4. Perhaps counter intuitively, I’d have given ourselves more time apart. If you sense you are being dark and moody, suggest your partner step away for a time or find somewhere you can go for a day or two with a close friend to give your partner a break from your moods. Encourage your partner’s other close friendships and allow them to make time with mates a priority. It doesn’t mean they are abandoning you. It might mean they are less likely to abandon you.
  5. I’d have spread the load more widely. I’ve said this before, but it bears repeating. Cultivate an inner circle of close friends you can confide in when you are feeling low, so your partner isn’t shouldering the burden alone. Get a mental health care plan from your GP and find yourself a good psychologist to speak to on a regular basis. Attend a support group or a men’s shed. Or book a regular session with a PCFA Telehealth counsellor or nurse.

Having said all that, if you do find yourself in the unfortunate circumstance I found myself in mid-2022, having to embark on a new life on your own while managing a cancer diagnosis, I also have a few tips.

  1. My dear old dad came through with some magnificently practical old school advice: “Don’t let your standards slip in terms of personal hygiene, dress, nutrition, general behaviour.” Happy to say, my place is not littered with empty beer cans and pizza boxes.
  2. Reach out to mates. Some of those who came to the fore in my hour of need weren’t necessarily my closest mates previously, but you better believe they are now.
  3. You probably know a few blokes who have been through the same agonising process, and they are likely sources of good counsel, as long as it doesn’t veer into the bitter and twisted.
  4. Don’t enrich the lawyers. Try and do all you can to avoid hostilities and lawyers at twelve paces. It will only erode whatever assets you have to divide.
  5. Similarly, do all you can to try and keep things amicable. After a lengthy marriage, most of us have a bulging dossier of grievances but airing them loudly and angrily probably ain’t gonna help. If you have kids, make their welfare your shared priority.
  6. Remember that mental health care plan you got from your GP? This is the time to use it on a regular basis. Having a good vent and some professional expertise on your side is priceless.
  7. Practice good self-care. That M.E.D.S. mantra? (Meditation, exercise, diet, sleep) It’s never been more needed. If you never thought you were the meditating type, guess what? You are now. Exercise, time in nature, eating a good variety of healthy food, going easy on the booze, coffee and screens to assist sleep, will help you weather the storm.

There is life after a separation and unimagined new opportunities, friendships and interests might present themselves. In fact, while we’re at it, can we ditch the term “separation” altogether? However painful it may be, many relationships run their course and usher in a time for change and renewal. Maybe “completion” is a healthier term for closing a relationship chapter.

About the Author

Tim Baker is an award-winning author, journalist and storyteller specialising in surfing history and culture, working across a wide variety of media from books and magazines to film, video, and theatre. Some of his most notable books include “Occy”, a national bestseller and chosen by the Australia Council as one of “50 Books You can’t Put Down” in 2008, and “The Rip Curl Story” which documents the rise of the iconic Australian surf brand to mark its 50th anniversary in 2019. Tim is a former editor of Tracks and Surfing Life magazines. He has twice won the Surfing Australia Hall of Fame Culture Award.

Tim was diagnosed with stage 4, metastatic prostate cancer in 2015 with a Gleason score 9. He was told he had just five years of reasonable health left, but seven years on, at 57, he’s still surfing, writing, and enjoying being a dad. His latest book, Patting The Shark, also documents his cancer journey and will be published in August. Tim will be sharing weekly insights into his journey to help other men who have also been impacted by prostate cancer.