by Hugh Gilmore
Thus far: Just before Thanksgiving I was caught off-guard by being told that I had prostate cancer. Until then, I had enjoyed a healthy, active life. Suddenly my life was in danger. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause (after lung cancer) of cancer deaths among men. I was told to get tested some more to see if it had spread out (metastasized) from my prostate into the rest of my body. If it had, there was a strong chance I would die. If it had not metastasized, I had an excellent five-year survival potential. However, the treatments would be harsh enough that I might lose my male potency and future control of my bladder and bowels. On the other hand, la, la, la, and chin up to you and yours.
Everywhere I went for the next week people wished me a Happy Holiday or Happy Thanksgiving. I wished them the same, just as though I were one of them and still had a right to dwell among the Land of the Healthy. In fact, I felt my usual healthy self. As though I were in denial. As though the Grief Stage Squad would need to hunt me down and straighten me out.
Elisabeth Kübler-Ross’s 1969 book, “On Death and Dying,” introduced her theory of the Stages of Grief, placing Denial among them as the first, as though it were The Original Sin. The concept has since become so common in our culture it is used in a general way to refer to a kind of clueless or stubborn person who refuses to accept “the truth.” Whatever. I guess you might say I went through the next few weeks in denial. I didn’t lie down on the tracks and wait for the 4:23 Chestnut Hill Local. I didn’t sit in a corner and cry. I shopped for Thanksgiving and helped make Thanksgiving dinner and had a good time with my extended family. I just didn’t feel scared yet. It was all just words, words, and more words.
I don’t believe I was in denial. I didn’t feel bad. I didn’t look bad. I didn’t act abnormally. There was only a piece of paper from a urology lab and the words of my urologist to contradict the fact that I felt good.
What was there to deny? After all, I had never experienced this phenomenon before. I had no sensory apprehension of it. It was like being a child again and being told for the first time about god, or original sin. As a child you don’t see, hear, smell, feel or taste what the grownups are talking about. You have only their words for it. And you watch and see the grownups, the adults, even the biggest of them, going into a building called a church and see them bow and genuflect and join their voices in saying the same words, called prayers, together. You begin believing there must be a god because you start thinking that something must be making the adults behave so humbly. After a while you begin imitating their movements and saying the same words and saying you “believe” in what they believe.
So it was with my cancer. I didn’t use that word – cancer – for a while. It took me about five weeks to use it in reference to the results of my biopsy. It made me cringe to say it. If I spoke it out loud I felt at first like I was using bad language, or saying something impolite. Or frightening. You know: something that might scare the kiddos.
In fact, the single most-difficult conversation I had was when I told my 30-year-old son, Andrew. This happened about a week after my diagnosis while he and I were on our way to the gym late one afternoon. I chose my words carefully, something like: routine test every man over 40 should have – called a PSA test. Got high number. Investigated further through a biopsy. Turned out I have a middling case of cancer. Got two more tests, one called a Bone Scan, the other a CAT scan of the soft tissues. They said the cancer had not spread outside the prostate gland.
It was as hard for me to say those words as it was for him to hear them. I sensed Andrew scrunch up. I looked over. His eyes were tightly shut and tears were running down his cheeks as we sat in the parking facing the gym wall. “That’s okay,” I said, “It’s not the best thing to happen, but it’s curable.”
“I hope so,” he said. Poor kid, he’s had his share of difficulties growing up. I felt guilty for rocking the foundations of his world. I told him, I’d still be around to be his father. I almost lost it myself, saying that. My own eyes were moist by then. I guess that’s the day the truth sunk in. I don’t know what this thing called “cancer’ is, but I know it has the power to hurt my family. It’s real.
The quick weeks since then have been dedicated to learning enough about prostate cancer to make the decision about treatment. I was told my treatment options were limited to surgery, or radiation. I investigated the hopes and bothers of each.
Either way, I’ve learned to say the word “cancer” as simply the name of the problem I’m working on. I’ve gotten over the shame of having it. I no longer feel or worry that other people will see me as a leper, or a person who makes bad choices about his body parts. Cancer: It is what it is. I’d be angry (or sad) if this kind of thing happened only to me and nobody else, but that’s not the case. It’s common and it’s simply my turn.
What happens next is in the hands of my surgeon at Fox Chase Cancer Center. Next Monday, the 19th of December.