By Kari Bohlke
Dr. Barbera Honnebier is a plastic and reconstructive surgeon in Hawaii. Two years ago, at the age of 42, she was diagnosed with an extremely rare tumor of the airways. When asked about how cancer affected her life, her sexuality, and her intimate relationships, she immediately responds, “My cancer changed everything.” After her diagnosis she broke her engagement, found solace in a brief relationship with a much younger man, then finally met the love of her life.
When first diagnosed with cancer, Barbera says, “I was absolutely floored, but it helped me approach it as any other challenge in my life. When I went through treatment, I gave it 110 percent. With that I tried to be as positive about it as I could possibly be. I saw it, and still see it, as an indicator of how negative energy and emotions can erode your life. So now I really want to live and capture each single day. And with that comes the experience of sexuality and partnership.”
When asked how partners can be supportive after a cancer diagnosis, Barbera responds, “Ideally, they have to be supportive of you emotionally—your fears and your concerns—but also supportive of you physically. If you have a partner, I think it is important that they understand your disease and stand by you during your treatment. I think that is a key factor. This, of course, is not easy. If your partner is intimidated or frightened by your illness or does not know what to do with it, that in and of itself must create a divide. As a woman, you want to sense in your partner that no matter what happens to your body, he or she will still love you and desire you—and not because you have two breasts or whatever other body part you might be at risk for losing but for a host of other reasons. I think women want to hear that. Women want to be desired.”
Barbera’s cancer diagnosis contributed to the breakup of an eight-year relationship. “We had, and still have, a great bond. I never doubted my fiancé’s love for me,” she says. “And it is difficult to summarize what happened and not entirely fair to the great relationship we had as there were many factors involved. But certain needs I had were not met. I felt undesirable. I found it very hard to have to indicate that I really craved physical attention and intimacy. I don’t want to have to beg you to reach out to me. I’d rather have you freely give it to me. Not everybody is equally ‘touchy-feely’ of course, but this was a time when I realized how important that was for me and for my overall happiness.”
It was at this point, just two weeks after her final radiation treatment, that Barbera began a three-month relationship with a young Venezuelan man she met on one of her medical missions. When the relationship began, she remembers thinking, This is obviously what I have been missing. I haven’t felt this alive in years. I need this right now and maybe for the rest of my life. Her prognosis was uncertain at the time, and when she met someone who said, “I don’t care about any of that—I think you are fabulous and sexy and I just want you,” it truly was like a message. It brought out all the sensuality that life has to offer.
Though that particular relationship was not destined to last, it taught Barbera about what she wanted in her life. Now on the other side of treatment, and clear about what she needs, she has found the love she dreamed of her whole life. In describing her current partner, Young, she says, “I am so blessed—truly, truly blessed—to have met somebody at this stage of my life who really gets it, who really gets me and who gets the vulnerable side of me, who gets all the other issues I struggle with. He is the most joyful man I’ve ever been around. And he has his own issues. We just continue to help each other on a daily basis. We help each other grow. . . . Most important, however, he treats me like a woman every day—his woman—and he makes me feel beautiful every day and desired every day. And that’s part of feeling alive, especially after everything I’ve been through. It’s a large part of what I want out of my life now: true partnership and positive energy.”
In her relationship with Young, the topic of her cancer was something Barbera brought up after it became apparent that their relationship was becoming serious. And despite her happiness, she acknowledges that she and Young discuss her fears of not being able to promise a future together and of being a burden if she gets sick again. She feels incredibly lucky that Young’s response has been, “Well one of us has to die first. I love you and I want to be there with you.”
Regarding the challenges of starting new relationships after a cancer diagnosis, Barbera says, “You have desires and wants and needs, and you meet a new man you are attracted to, but you have now been brutally confronted with your mortality. It’s a very different ballgame. The same holds true for other challenges. I am much more fearless now.” What helped was to tell herself: I have nothing to lose, do I? Let’s go for it. I may have never spoken to this guy five years ago; but now, hey, I’ve been through cancer treatment. How much worse can it get? I should go and say hello to the guy. If he blows me off, so be it. Why waste time?
Asked if she has recommendations for women who are currently in a relationship, she says, “If you are in a relationship with a person whom you can actually converse with, make it known that you truly would love to be desired because that may be very nurturing. I really believe that is so helpful—to just feel desired as a woman aside from everything that is going on with your illness and your prognosis. Just forget about it, however briefly. Be intimate and just enjoy each other, body and soul. It can provide such a relief because it is just so joyful. To be with the right partner and to enjoy them sexually and intimately—there is really nothing like it.”
Barbera stresses her belief that positive intimate relationships can play an important role in the healing process. “My tumor is right in the center of my chest. The more I can nourish my heart and feel good about my life—what I do with it and the people around me, love and be loved—the better it’s going to be for my cancer. I believe that one’s immune system is strengthened by love and, importantly, by physical touch. I think there is so much unknown about that element of healing—and I mean touch in a very broad sense—feeling loved by pets, by family members, by partners, by lovers, by whomever. I think that can do nothing but help you. I wish that for everyone. I really do.”
Finally, she notes that women shouldn’t be afraid to ask for support. As she puts it, she discovered through cancer that her life was not about being “a lonely camel crossing the desert without supplies.” She came to realize that she needed supplies, including love, unqualified support, loyalty, and intimacy. She says, “You have to ask for help sometimes. You have to reach out to people sometimes. And it’s okay. I was raised to not ask anybody for anything, but it’s not so bad. I had to get cancer to discover what true love means.”