Why the Doctor Prescribed Viagra for My Brain Tumor

I’ve never enjoyed waiting for a stranger to examine my prostate but I at least assumed it would happen the morning I went to see a urologist.

For several years, I’d noticed a subtle decline in my libido which seemed to worsen in more obvious ways last year. I certainly felt challenged by the increasingly imbalanced Seattle dating scene but I also just didn’t seem to be turned on in the same ways I remembered. It could have been due to aging and psychology, but it seemed like there might be something else going on.

I brought in what lab work I had, filled out an extensive survey and waited for the doctor. He spoke to me for a few minutes and suggested I should just begin using pills for erectile dysfunction (ED). He didn’t ask me much about what I’d been experiencing. He didn’t examine me. He didn’t order any tests. Instead, he brought me a paper bag full of samples of Cialis, Stendra and Viagra. For fifteen minutes of his time, which turned out not to be covered by my insurance, I’d receive a bill for $302.

This was a new experience for me. I was struggling with a health issue central to my quality of life and happiness and felt unheard, dismissed and mistreated by a doctor who seemed to act as a courier between the pharmaceutical industry and patients. Though I was relieved to have avoided a prostate exam, I left dismayed and a bit depressed. This was the specialist my doctor had suggested but I left feeling unsure about asking the medical community for help with these symptoms again.

Visiting the doctor can be intimidating for many of us. We’re often raising vulnerable questions in settings that elevate medical professionals as authority figures surrounded by staff and expensive equipment. I grew up in relative privilege, raised in an upper middle-class environment, which made facing doctor’s offices a bit easier. But it can still be a challenge, likely for all parties — I know I have annoyed and fatigued more than a few doctors this year in my efforts to advocate for myself.

It turns out, what I was experiencing wasn’t exactly ED, it was different and more subtle. If the urologist had inquired, he would have found that I was primarily struggling with arousal, something I’d later learn is partly related to a specific class of erections, of which there are roughly three: psychogenic (driven by thought, observation, or fantasy), reflex (driven by touch) and nocturnal. In the prior year, my psychogenic and morning erections had declined steeply. And while ED can be psychological it can also be related to circulatory disorders. Over the previous four months, I’d purposefully lost 20 pounds (eventually 30) and significantly reduced my blood pressure. Soon after, I had a heart X-ray showing no arterial plaque — a benefit of 20 years of vegetarianism.

So not surprisingly, the ED pills didn’t really help. When I experimented taking half tablets of the samples, I had stronger erections but I wasn’t more turned on.

I’d also been having low back and hip pain, so I went to see a physical therapist with a specialty in pelvic issues to rule out spinal and neurological problems. She, in turn, pointed me to a naturopath who specializes in sexual medicine1, but I’d been so bummed out by my experience with the urologist, I was reluctant to make an appointment. It wasn’t until another physical therapist remarked on my body awareness that I was inspired to ask for help with my arousal symptoms again. Her comment restored my trust in my own instinct that something unusual was going on.

Read the rest about how this led to discovering my brain tumor.