- Posted by jdavis on August 31, 2011
Dana Jennings, NY Times.com
Prostate cancer is a dark waltz, not the raging battle of popular imagination. From that first elevated PSA blood test, to the biopsy, to treatment, to those evil twins of impotence and incontinence and beyond, I’m still learning some very complicated steps more than seven months after my diagnosis.
Cancer is a hard teacher. No matter how much you glean from the Web, how many fellow travelers you talk to, how many questions you ask nurses and doctors, there are some lessons — physical, practical, emotional — that can only be learned firsthand.
I confess that I feel utterly vulnerable. But, as the poet Theodore Roethke wrote, “Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among the mysteries.” So, as I continue to move among these mysteries, here are 10 nuggets of prostate cancer wisdom that I had to learn for myself.
- Cancer takes you home. The hardest thing I’ve had to do since my diagnosis — and that includes having my radical open prostatectomy — was tell my parents that I had prostate cancer. My folks are working-class country people. They’re both 68, and they were 17 when I was born in 1957 — eight days after they got married. The three of us, literally, grew up together, and I’ve always been their little hyper-verbal mystery. They never quite understood why I needed to get the hell out of Kingston, N.H. And when I called them last April to say that I had cancer — maybe, after all these years, confirming their worst fears about life in and around New York City — I could barely speak for my fierce tears. Tears more for them, I know, than for me.
- Doctors forget to share the gory details. After my prostate was removed, my testicles swelled to the size of shot-puts — bright, red shot-puts — and stayed that way for days. Nobody told me to expect this condition, and only ice brought relief. (Conversely, now that I’m undergoing hormonal therapy, my testicles are shrinking.)
- Insurance can cause more stress than cancer. The goal of your insurer — no matter how singular or complex your case is — is to try to turn you into a statistical cliché, a cipher, in the face of your very human flesh-and-blood disease. In the months after my diagnosis, as my wife and I struggled to find the right pair of highly-skilled hands to perform my potentially difficult surgery, wrestling with my insurer caused me more grief, stress and depression than my cancer did. In our modern health-care-industrial-complex — and I’m talking about the bureaucrats who try to herd you into the cheapest cattle car available, not the nurses and doctors who are on the front lines — the emphasis is neither on health nor care, but on the bottom line. It’s our job, as patients, to resist with all our strength.
- Humor is all around you. On Halloween morning my wife and I were driving to the Cancer Institute of New Jersey in New Brunswick for my treatment. Just a quarter-mile from the institute we were stuck in traffic behind a truck … a casket truck: “Batesville Casket Company,” it read, “A Hillenbrand industry, helping families honor the lives of those they love.” All I could do was laugh harder than I had in days. (On a different drive down, the Beatles’ “Do You Want to Know a Secret” came on the radio, and I dissolved into tears. I still don’t understand why.)
- Not all blood techs are created equal. Some glide that needle into your vein as if they’re figure-skating on your arm. Others jab and stab as if they got their only training from watching the “Saw” movies. (By the way, only blood is “blood red.”)
- Nurses know what you need. I groaned in absolute gratitude in the recovery room at the post-op ice chips the nurses spooned into my swollen, anesthesia-parched mouth.
- Cancer can be a punch line. I learned pretty quickly, with my wife and sons, that the phrase, “I’ve got cancer,” wasn’t a bad punch line — as in: “You take out the dog. I’ve got cancer” or “You answer the phone. I’ve got cancer” or “I ‘call’ the TV to watch ‘Monday Night Football.’ I’ve got cancer.” They’d all roll their eyes, laugh … then go do what I asked.
- Home remedies are essential to cancer recovery. There is no better post-op therapy on a sweltering July day than a cold glass of lemonade, a transcendent oldie on the CD player — say, “Doggin’ Around” by Jackie Wilson — a stack of comic books at hand (“The Incredible Hulk,” “The Mighty Thor”) and the grace of a funny and compassionate visitor.
- Don’t sneeze after surgery. My first post-op sneeze felt as if some beyond-feral wolverine had burrowed its way into my gut, possibly seeking a second prostate that the docs had somehow overlooked.
- You can find hope in strange places. A few times a day, after my operation, I’d run my fingers up and down the 25 metal staples that the surgeon had used to close me up — the skin around them red-purple, proud, tender and feeling as if it belonged to someone else. Sometimes, in fingering those staples, I felt that they were the only things in this world, in their plain and utilitarian way, that were possibly holding me together.