What I saw in the crowded elevator is usually not that remarkable: a young couple standing close to each other, their eyes locked. She raised her right hand slowly and stroked his cheek, whispering “Oh, sweetheart.” I could not see his response as his back was to me, but I could tell from the slope of his shoulders that he carried a heavy burden. The elevator reached the main floor and they walked out into the lobby of the cancer center. I remained in the elevator and was left imagining the context of that fleeting moment of affection.
Despite being a sexuality counsellor who supports couples dealing with the aftermath of cancer treatment, it is unusual for me to see PDA (public displays of affection) at the cancer center. In the hallways or waiting rooms of the institution I see couples holding hands as they wait for their appointment, but the holding of hands is different from a hand on the cheek, a softly murmured endearment. In my office there is the occasional reach across the table as one of the couple makes physical contact when a secret has been revealed or a tear falls. But that moment in the elevator as the young woman touched her partner’s cheek stood out for me and I keep seeing it in my mind’s eye.
What had just happened in an examination room that led to that truly intimate moment in the small space of the elevator? Was it a new diagnosis for the young man that came out of the blue despite vague symptoms that he had lived with or denied for a while? Or perhaps it was confirmation of a recurrence of a cancer that they thought was part of the past, a dark time that had been replaced by the light of a future that was now in jeopardy? Perhaps it was she who had received bad news but was comforting her partner who had been hoping for good, better, or the best news?
Counselling young adults with cancer touches me in ways that older couples often does not. Despite almost 20 years of this work, my heart continues to ache in the face of the life changes that cancer causes for all the individuals I see professionally, but especially for those who are at the precipice of what they are meant to become as adults.
What I had witnessed and what had stuck with me is the truly intimate moment they had shared in a very public space. The word “intimate” is often spoken in my office and it is frequently used as a euphemism for something more visceral such as sexual intercourse. Language matters, as I have written before, but patients often use other ways to describe what they are experiencing. I seek to clarify what they mean—“When you say ‘intimacy,’ are you talking about emotional connection or do you mean sex?”—because I need to understand where the problem lies for any couple. For some people, of course, sex is not intimate at all. A one-night stand with a stranger is not likely to be one of emotional connection although the sex might be really good! It is acknowledged that for sex to be satisfying, particularly for women, the emotional connection may be more important than orgasms (Basson, 2000). Sex with emotional connection is special and should not be taken for granted; I see that every day in my practice where cancer, but more often its treatment, robs many of that physical and emotional connectedness. A quick review of the word “intimate” in a thesaurus lists many synonyms: close, near, cherished, comfortable, snug, personal, private, secret, innermost, profound, deep, special, caring, tenderness, and affection. Sex is not mentioned so at least the thesaurus gets it right!
I hope that the other people in the elevator saw that moment as that young woman touched the young man’s cheek. Her whispered “Oh, sweetheart” spoke volumes about love in times of despair, hope in the midst of disappointment, and a connection that will endure. Her hand on his face touched me, in my heart and in the momentary loss of my breath, and in a brief few seconds, reminded me what love can be even under the most difficult of circumstances. I am grateful for the lesson learned.
Basson R. The female sexual response: a different model. J Sex Marital Ther. 2000:26;51-65.