‘One side effect of my cancer treatment was a massive blow to my masculinity’

By Staff 9 Min Read

Sean Baker says men need to be more open about loss of sexual function after treatment for a prostate cancer diagnosis left him struggling with erectile dysfunction

Many cancer patients are familiar with the scenario – you know that the lifesaving treatment you are having will hopefully cure you, but it could also result in long-term, even permanent, changes to your body and health.

This was 54-year-old Sean Baker’s experience after he was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2018, and curative surgery left him with erectile dysfunction (ED).

Despite the fact around 80 per cent of men experience ED following pelvic cancer surgery as a result of damage to penile tissue and nerves, it remains a taboo topic, and the fear of impotence can deter men from seeking and receiving treatment.

“I knew, as I being wheeled in for surgery in March 2019, that there was a risk,” says Sean, who lives in South Norwood, London, with his wife Michelle, 50, with whom he has four children. “My priority was survival and being cancer free, and if my ability to have sex afterwards was affected, I would cross that bridge when I came to it with the support of my wife. But I know personally men who’ve refused to have treatment for prostate cancer for this reason, to the detriment of their health and quality of life.”

Cancer charity Macmillan, along with sexual wellness brand Lovehoney, has just launched a campaign to break down taboos around sex following a cancer diagnosis. Their research has revealed that 23 per cent of people with cancer in the UK have major concerns about sex and intimacy, but fewer than half of those who want help have had support, and are left to manage issues by themselves.

After experiencing an urgent need to pee, in February 2018, Sean, who works as a community psychiatric nurse, saw his GP who examined him and referred him for further tests as his prostate was enlarged. These revealed he had cancer, but initially Sean was advised no treatment was necessary yet.

“I had a family history of prostate cancer but I was just 49 and thought of it as an older man’s disease. So, it was a shock to get my diagnosis. I had a biopsy and was told my cancer was slow growing and it was safe to simply monitor it regularly, and take medication. Doctors told me I may be able to live with it for up to 15 years before anything more had to be done.”

However, six months later, a check-up and biopsy revealed the cancer was growing quickly and Sean was advised to have surgery as a matter of urgency. He was operated on in March 2019 and the surgery a success.

“To learn I was cancer-free with a quick recovery from the surgery and no need for chemo or radiotherapy made me feel extremely fortunate,” says Sean. However, it soon became apparent he had become a statistic when it came to his erectile function. Although surgeons had worked carefully to spare some of the nerves around the area they were operating on, the operation to save his life had still resulted in a loss of sexual function.

“I was unable to have an erection and experienced shrinkage too,” says Sean. “I felt guilty even feeling low about it because I know so many people don’t survive cancer, or endure months and years of gruelling treatment, while my experience had been reasonably straightforward.

“However, it felt like a blow to my masculinity and, aged 50, the thought of never being intimate with my wife again left me feeling very sad, despite the fact she was so supportive and understanding.”

Thankfully, unlike many men who may have simply suffered in silence, in September 2019, Sean spoke to his GP about the issues he was having.

He was prescribed both Viagra and a penis pump, which helps men achieve and maintain an erection by drawing blood into the penis via air suction.

Neither were an instant fix but, Sean says, within around eight months and after some tweaking of the Viagra dosage, his erectile function was much improved.

“I still need to use both when I want to be intimate with Michelle, they are a permanent fixture in our sex life, but that’s OK. I’m just glad I found a solution to the problems I was having,” he says. “And I feel lucky I was in a loving and supportive relationship. Michelle was just amazing.”

Sean acknowledges that it’s not easy for men to speak out about erectile dysfunction after cancer treatment but firmly believes that more openness will save lives.

“I’m part of a cancer support group, with men and women who’ve been diagnosed with all forms of the disease. When you hear what some people have been through, it can make you feel like a loss of a sex life is less important, but I’ve come to realise that it is a valid thing to care about and talk about.

“I feel my quality of life, and my mental wellbeing, have both improved since I was able to address the problems with my sexual function.

“I share my story to show other men that yes, ED can happen after prostate cancer surgery, but it can also be treated. Fear or worry about impotence should not be a reason to risk your life by ignoring symptoms or refusing treatment.”

  • To find out more about sex and cancer, and to access support visit macmillan.org.uk/cancerandsex

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