by Hugh Gilmore
I’ve considered a hundred opening sentences for this series of articles about my recent diagnosis of prostate cancer, each of them carrying its own attitude: serious, humorous, poetic, philosophic, wry, ironic, sad, indifferent, even – since this is a print newspaper – journalistic.
Yes, that’s the ticket: a brave new series giving facts and figures and percentages and procedures, all done as a public service. Perhaps helping some other guy avoid what I’m dealing with now. But I can’t do that. I don’t really know enough and am not likely to, because right now I’m fairly obsessed only with the parts that concern myself. I’ve decided that the only way I can sustain this story over the coming weeks, as I try to shape what little I can of my fate, is to write as plainly and honestly as I can.
A starting point: Every year I have a routine lab test done as part of my general health assessment. For years my annual PSA (prostate-specific antigen) score has risen slightly each time it has been measured. Then – this is how fast things happened – October 20: PSA test. October 25: Conference about PSA test, high score this time, agree to biopsy. November 2: Biopsy – uncomfortable, but not unbearable. Wait for results.
Wait some more. More. More. Wait some more. No big deal. Let’s not worry about something that hasn’t happened yet. Once in a while I’d try to calm my wife, Janet’s, nerves by saying that all older men carry some cancer in their prostates, no big deal. It’s slow growing. I’ll outlive it. The doctor’s going to tell me I have a little bit of slow-growing cancer, and we’ll have to monitor things more closely from now on. That’s all. Right?
Times like that are when the passage of time seems unkindly slow. My doctor had said, “I’ll call you as soon as I know.” Come early Monday morning, November 7, as I sat at my desk tweaking my column for the Local, he called to say I have cancer. No numbers given, probably because experience has taught him to not trust patients with numbers, not over the phone anyway. Just, some cancer, not a horrible cancer, but not one that can be ignored either. After years of sing-a-long surveillance as my PSA numbers grew, he finally got to feel the cold nausea that hard news brings. He said I should come in on Thursday with my wife and he’d discuss “treatment options” with me. I agreed and we hung up.
I closed my eyes and looked at the floor. Was my life in danger? Had my life’s drama suddenly shifted from the quiet domesticity of the middle acts to the surprise final curtain? No, he had said something about a ninety-something percent, five-year survival rate. Okay, I’d come Thursday. With my wife. What now? I could think of nothing better to do than to finish editing my post-election article about the travel writer Richard Grant. I did that. A half hour later I clicked Send.
Janet was upstairs preparing to take the train to 30th Street Station. She was going to go meet and have lunch with her friend Betsy whom she hadn’t seen in 20 years. She was wonderfully happy. Innocently so. I couldn’t tell her my news then. Our news, actually.
For the rest of the day I resisted the temptation to memorize the American Cancer Society website section on prostate cancer. Instead I stayed away from the Internet and went to the gym. Whatever was coming my way would be stressful, and the stronger and more fit I was, the better I’d be prepared for the unknown.
I remembered reading Barbara Ehrenreich’s book about American attitudes, “Bright Sided: How Positive Thinking is Undermining America” (2009). During her breast cancer treatments, she got sick of all the pink ribbons and pink baby teddy bears the breast cancer treatment centers displayed. She thinks no one “fights” cancer.” One endures the treatment for it. I guess I’ll be finding out sooner than I wanted to.
I spent the rest of the afternoon finishing reading “The Last Bookstore in America,” by Amy Stewart. Anyone who cares about books and reading would enjoy this knowing, satirical novel about a Yuppie couple who inherit an old bookstore that’s managing to stay in business by harboring a secret product. I own and run an old and rare bookselling business, love reading and collecting old books and I found this book charming. It had also suddenly taken on magical dimensions in light of the morning’s cancer news. I tried hard not to equate the decline of my industry with the sudden downturn in my health.
That evening, I was glad to meet Janet at the train when she came back from seeing her friend. She was so happy I couldn’t think of a good time to tell her my news. Come to think of it, I wasn’t sure what my news was. My doctor never used the word “cancer,” actually. Oh, he did say that whatever it was, it had registered on five of twelve core samples taken for biopsy.
A moment arrived where the initial excitement of Janet’s return quieted down and I did not want to carry the burden of not revealing important news. When I told her that the doctor had called this morning she immediately came alert and told me to tell her what he said. I hid my fear and said, “Not horrible news, but not perfectly good either.” The best I could do. Monday night…we’d have to wait till we saw him together, as man and wife, on Thursday morning for the kinds of details one can chew on.
Hugh Gilmore is the author of several books, some of which grew out of columns written for The Local. His bestselling memoir is titled: “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.”