Advice: Outside the Box


Cancer . . . just hearing the word makes us squirm—especially when we hear this: “You have a very fast-growing prostate cancer.”

Six weeks ago, I was sitting in my doctor’s office with my partner Ernie, hearing those exact words. Beginning that day, my world became a whirlwind of various tests, then surgery, followed bv weeks of being trapped in a bed or chair with drain tubes and bags needing to be changed every few hours.

The good news is that the surgery to remove my prostate was successful, and follow-up radiation and hormone therapy promise to ensure no traces of cancer remain. I’m at home now recovering well, lavished with love and concern (and more food than I know what to do with), thanks to a wonderful network of family and friends.

When I shared what I was going through with editor and life-long friend Ted Fleischaker, he suggested I skip last month’s column then make my next feature a memoir recounting my experiences. So, here goes . . .

Lots of us may wonder at times what we would do if we were ever confronted with a diagnosis of cancer. As for me, I’ve imagined myself bravely doing “whatever it took” to vanquish the disease, even trying experimental drugs that hadn’t been approved yet for use on humans. I’ve fantasized melodramatic scenarios where I refused debilitating treatments in favor of cherishing what little quality time I had left with loved ones.

When the time actually came, of course, none of these things happened. Instead I found myself taking a deep breath, reaching for Ernie’s hand, then calmly exploring treatment options with my physician. Admittedly my cool exterior disguised the fact that my heart was pounding wildly. However I managed to keep my act together until the consultation was over and we had a clear treatment plan — an immediate prostatectomy.

There were some tears on the ride home as Ernie and I discussed how to tell the kids, and more tears when I actually did talk to them later that day. However both my kids are strong, optimistic people, so we were able to comfort each other with reminders that we had caught the cancer early and the prognosis was good.

Thanks to frequent cards, visits, and phone calls from friends, I survived the interval until surgery pretty well. The day of mv surgery, going through all the pre-op preparations, I was buoyed by the presence of Ernie, my daughter Alex, and several other loved ones. The next thing I knew, I was waking up in recovery.

From there, things were pretty awful for a while. My physician had opted for the traditional hands-on “radical” surgery where a long incision is made, rather than the more common robotic procedure which is much less invasive. I had thought I had a pretty high pain tolerance, but in those first hours post-surgery I found myself watching the clock anxiously to see when I could push my pain pump again — and I pushed it every eight minutes to be sure.

Surprisingly, the hardest, most unpleasant part was being stuck in bed with a catheter and a drain tube from the incision. Waiting for someone to come, discard your bodily fluids is a humbling experience. Because Ernie is a nurse and I too have worked in hospitals, my treatment team soon became comfortable with us taking care of these tasks ourselves, and I felt immeasurably better being more independent in that way. Despite my pain and discomfort, my physician and nurses expressed great satisfaction with my progress, telling me I was “the best prostatectomy patient they ever saw.” I’ll admit, I’m pretty determined when confronted with obstacles, and I put all my energy into getting out of the hospital quickly.

Home again after a mere three days, I felt like a kid on his birthday, just being able to sit in familiar surroundings and sleep in my own bed. Gazing about me at the comfortable rooms of our house or out the windows at the fields of our farm, I was reminded how easily we come to take simple pleasures for granted. Now well on my way to a complete recovery’, I can look back on all I’ve gone through and give thanks for a lot of things.

First I’m thankful for a vigilant, proactive physician who caught my cancer early through frequent PSA tests in the last year, then treated it aggressively. Any men out there who don’t get annual PSAs need to change that immediately. I’m also thankful to live in a time and place where medical advances and other resources make fighting cancer more promising than in the past.

But most of all, I’m thankful for family and friends who surrounded me with love, and whose prayers I believe made a really big difference. In closing, guvs get a PSA at least annually. Anyone else with risk factors for cancer of any type, get frequent screenings. Most cancers are treatable, and the earlier treatment occurs the better the prognosis. Finally, for those of you currently coping with cancer, whether yours or a loved ones, good luck and God bless.

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