Hugh Gilmore: A picture of health (with a little help from wife, Janet Gilmore)

by Hugh Gilmore

Folks who know me, but haven’t seen me lately, are surprised when we meet by how “good” I look. I guess they expected me to wear my illness more outwardly. Perhaps they expected me to look shriveled, or gaunt. But I’m not. Or, not yet. My cheeks remain rosé red (sometimes tomato juicy). And I’m as energetic as I ever was. And smiley. And still just about the funniest guy ever.

My friends know I was diagnosed with prostate cancer last November after a high PSA test score and a prostate biopsy. Not wanting to live with cancer inside me, I opted for a radical prostatectomy via the DaVinci robot method. That went well. I came home the next day and even went to Abba’s “Mamma Mia” two days after that. I’d bought tickets back in September – the last rosy month I’d carry cancer around with me and not know it.

My former prostate was a walnut-sized gland that resided between my bladder and intestine. Its main function was to provide a buoyant and nourishing fluid stream for sperm on its way out of the body. The prostate is one of the bodily structures more likely to develop cancer. If the cancer cells remain inside its capsule they tend to multiply comparatively slowly, doubling perhaps every four years. In some cases, though, they grow more quickly – or escape the gland, or both. That is not good.

Until then, however, there are very few external signs that one has prostate cancer. It’s said that by the time the external symptoms show, the man feeling them is in trouble and needs immediate attention. Prostate cancer is the second leading cause of cancer death among men (after lung cancer).

Ladies: Tell the men in your life, and men: listen up: A simple blood test measuring a man’s PSA level, taken yearly, perhaps when his cholesterol is checked, only takes a minute and is vital to well-being and peace of mind. (A PSA test measures the amount of prostate-specific-antigen in your blood stream.)

There are both incidental and unhealthy causes of of high PSA scores. But it is wise to try to find out what’s the case with yourself. Most men are OK. Some, like myself, note a steady rise in their PSA levels over time. When I couldn’t stand wondering any more, when I was on the verge of fear, I asked for a biopsy. I was unlucky. I had prostate cancer and it was severe enough to not be ignored. CAT scans and bone scans showed it had probably not (yet) spread outside the gland.

Since my operation, which I felt as a brush with death, my life has changed, mostly in subtle ways. I’ve not experienced any pain I could attribute to the cancer, but have felt some unpleasant after-effects from the surgery itself. The body does not easily forgive invasions like that. I have a two-inch scar under my belly button (the point of exit when my bagged prostate gland was pulled from my body) and five finger-tip-size scars across my abdomen as though I’d lost a quarrel with Machine Gun Kelly. For months afterward, the skin around those scars was so hypersensitive I could not stand the touch of my shirt. My energy level was low and had to be used wisely. Many of my bodily functions were less than ideal.

In time, most of my body returned to doing what it should, on command. I feel no pain nor deterioration. Time’s passage in my life is now punctuated, however, by having a PSA test every three months. An ideal score would be zero. Mine is. .016. That’s 1.6 percent. That microscopic amount of cancer remains in my body. It may never knock louder than that tiny, muffled rap of an .016. Then again, it may grow big enough to blow my house down. I take the days I do have as a gift.

More importantly, I live now with a sense that I’ve been given a second life. Family and friends come first. Good times are doubly enjoyable. I still love reading, but am more patient with the authors I read. Different strokes for different folks, that’s all.

I’m not sad or nostalgic about life, neither mine nor anyone else’s, but I do feel an enormous sympathy for others’ lives and I’m working very hard at not judging their tastes simply because they don’t match mine. Feeling liberated, you might say. Even if the hammer comes down again, I’m hoping to say I’ve had at least two good lives.

Hugh Gilmore is the author of a funny and compelling memoir called, “My Three Suicides: A Success Story.” Available in both print and e-book formats.

  • Vincent & Annette Bertone

    I’m 81 & my DR says I’m OK. Am I lucky or what. What do you think?

  • Darryl Hart

    Hugh, I’m rooting for you.

  • Hiller

    Thanks for sharing and all the best.

  • Robert Zucker

    Hi Hugh. You were my Primate Prof at U of M in 1980. I was to do independent study with you that summer, but as a great loss to U of M, you departed that summer.

    It is startling to see your face after so many years, but I agree: You look good. I have not thought about you for many years, yet something inspired me to seek you out on the internet. I realized that you profoundly shaped who I am today in just one quarter of school. I have since always focused on primate studies in the media with great interest. There is so much more material that is easily found today than in 1980. I am an electrical engineer for work, but you have left me with the soul of a naturalist and a primatologist.

    What triggered my search for you was a local radio broadcast of Robert Sopolsky. He delivered some very interesting concepts about intelligence, but he also waved off the idea of free will, dismissing it as nonexistent or irrelevant.

    Without getting into the whole debate about free will going back to the man you labeled as “Brash” Barash, I would like to propose a model for free-will’s role in evolution:
    I observed a bird flying from one fence post to the next at a distance of about 50 feet. The bird flew in a whimsical path with apparent joy. Having lived with and observed cats, who have a great capacity for precision when jumping such that a minimal expenditure of energy is wasted, I am certain that the typical bird could fly a perfectly straight line, even in the presence of cross winds. Instead, it flew as though the act were a recreational pleasure. Why? I hypothesized that a completely predictable bird, that follows a minimum energy path in its flights would be very vulnerable to intelligent predators. “Allowing” free will to evolve, and make to flight path unpredictable would certainly contribute to survival. The bird is rewarded with the pleasure of fanciful flight and it is more likely to reproduce.

    Thus, we conform to the concept of animals being survival machines, but perhaps free will has a tangible role in the scheme of things. I cannot guess what a dragon fly experiences, but maybe even a fly can take pleasure in apparently random flight.

    Bob Zucker:

  • SuzieLa La

    Hello Dr. Gilmore!
    I’m relieved to read that you had the surgery, that it was successful (fingers & toes crossed) and that like me, you survived a harrowing health scare to come out the sunny side, appreciating and honoring the bounteous beauty of each day.

    I fully intend to write a piece about you since, without your verve for the written word and your support in my Senior English Seminar, I may not have survived as well as I did. I know I wouldn’t have. When I was unable to make it to school, you pulled up in that VW bug and brought me literature in which I could engage my mind. You were the only educator that cared enough to do so much to keep me present in the works we studied. Because of you, I felt that I had the strength and ability to graduate; that summer, that’s exactly what I did. I owe this to you, Dr. Gilmore. I went on to live 10 lifetimes. I’m not done yet. I hope we see each other again someday.
    • Journalist
    • Film Critic
    • Editor
    • Screenwriter
    (^^^ All Possible Because of You)