Recently, sitting face to face with an infertile patient, I asked him what the first thing was that came to his mind after being told that he had no sperm count. After a short silence in which his eyes gazed downward and then back again toward me, he stated, quietly “I thought it might be the end of my family lineage.”
Facing a diagnosis of infertility is one of the loneliest experiences a man can have, as evidenced by a study I recently co-authored with Drs. James Smith and Patty Katz at UCSF. Published in The Journal of Sexual Medicine this week, it found that men with a diagnosis of male infertility suffer intense negative sexual, personal and social strains that might be considered typical for other medical illnesses, including cancer. It affects not only their self esteem, but their sexual confidence and sexual function. Think about it. Men find the inability to sire children a real and palpable blow to their manhood and self-identity. The impact of this diagnosis is easily comparable to the mortal challenge associated with a cancer diagnosis. Infertility causes an immense strain to their relationships both with their partners and socially. Adding to the strain, this diagnosis is as taboo as syphilis or AIDS. The ramifications for the rest of his life are significant, especially if his lifelong assumption was that having kids is normal, expected, eventually, would not be a problem. Infertility is often one big secret that is kept from the rest of the world, making the patient, and his partner, feel isolated and desperate.
I have seen this distress in my practice, day in and day out, for years. Finally, through this study, some proof has surfaced that male infertility is one of the toughest challenges a man can face in life. The funny thing is, male infertility is not as uncommon as one might think. It affects 10% to 15% of reproductive aged couples worldwide. About half as common as diabetes. But far more silent a disease than diabetes. The bright side is that it is treatable in many cases.
So what should men do if they have a diagnosis of infertility? First, get information so that you can make decisions and get control of the situation. You need to “own” it, and this is a great start. Learn through websites such as ASRM.org and SSMR.org, or TheTurekClinic.com and see a urologist or specialist. Also, talk openly with your partner and people you trust, and get the support that you need. Decide with your partner who needs to know about this and who doesn’t. Keep the lines of communication open with your partner, as this can be the most significant threat your relationship will ever see. Keep doing the things that you do best, as these are not likely the cause of infertility and can keep the balance in your life. Importantly, take time to “blow off” stress through exercise, sports, yoga, massage or whatever works for you. Maintain that critical balance as you tackle this issue like you have tackled others, and as you will tackle future issues.