It’s rare you can put your finger on the precise moment your life changed. In my case, it involved an actual finger.
In late July, I had an appointment with my family doctor before she skittered off to Abitibi. Near the end of the exam, she said, “Okay, let’s do it,” so I dropped my pants, lay on my side and took a deep breath.
And then I (uncomfortably) felt that finger hesitate, as if to say, “Wait a sec…”
“You have a bit of hardness on one side of your prostate,” my doctor reported. “It could be nothing, but let’s do a blood test.”
The blood test revealed a high PSA, and for the first time we were saying the word “cancer.” Prostate cancer. Of course I would get the most comedic of all the cancers, perhaps the only comedic one. It’s highly curable, so it’s okay to joke about; men grow goofy moustaches to raise awareness of it; and it involves the big three of physical comedy: incontinence, impotence and rectal probing.
“Well, there goes your sex life,” Deb joked when we got the news. Yeah, I thought and chuckled ruefully. Hang on: what did she mean “your”?
Weeks later, my urologist confirmed (even more uncomfortably) my doctor’s findings, and in early September, I had my biopsy.
A prostate biopsy is essentially a test to see how much indignity and discomfort you’ll be able to manage as a cancer patient. The day began with me drinking a dose of Monurol, “an antibiotic medicine used in adult women to treat urinary tract infection.” Side effects include dizziness, runny nose and vaginal infections. I’m relieved to report I suffered none of those.
We then headed to the hospital, where, as we walked past the helicopter landing pad, I tried not to let the limp windsock get to me.
Inside, I changed into a gown and sat in a hallway with three other men who clearly remembered the Great War. The orderly tried to be reassuring. “Ça va bien aller,” he kept saying as we each took our turn. “Notre sacrifice…” muttered one of the gents.
As for the procedure itself, it was like a nail gun up the rear, and that’s all I’ll say about that.
And then I waited. Once I recovered from the horrors of the biopsy, I went about my life, feeling fine, though every now and then I would think, “Oh yeah: I might have cancer.”
On September 28, I was sitting in a golf cart at Orford. It was a beautiful fall day, made more glorious because I wasn’t actually playing golf. My cell phone rang. It was my doctor. There was cancer all right, a Gleason scale of 8, aggressive, likely to spread rapidly.
Let’s cut to the good news: a bone scan and an abdominal scan revealed agonizingly later that the cancer had not spread. But in the meantime, I had to tell my family about what until then Deb and I had kept to ourselves. Telling the children has by far been the worst part of this whole ordeal. Parents spend their lives trying to protect their children from worry, and here I was being the source of it.
It’s gotten better as we’ve learned more about treatments and prognosis. But it’s still cancer. Even though 1 in 7 Canadian men get prostate cancer, even though it has a high survival rate, even though there are many, many people worse off than me, just the word “cancer” strikes fear. (Cancer has by far the worst PR of any disease. They should try calling it “Krazy Cells!”)
But it’s a tyrant, this cancer. Because of it, I feel I’ve lost control of my narrative. I’m not “fighting cancer”; you can’t fight a plane crash. Nor am I “living with cancer.” That’s like saying I’m “living with cats”: I had no choice in the matter and it’s terrible.
I have cancer. It’s in me. Doctors are getting it out. I’m just along for the ride.
Cancer may be calling the shots but I won’t let it define me. Does this mean I’m living life to the fullest? Hell, some days I’m not even living life to the halfest. But for every bad day, there have been more days when I’ve been overwhelmed by kindness or a piece of music or laughter with friends or the tartness of a tomato, which I’m supposed to eat one of a day, God help me.
This morning, I’m having my prostate removed. I’m writing this a few days prior, not yet having undergone the mortifications of pre-op enemas and extreme manscaping. In the coming weeks (months, years), I’ll deal with the psychological loss of my manhood, although honestly there wasn’t much manhood to lose in the first place. But today, we close the chapter that began with a finger. Hopefully everyone washed their hands.
Tomorrow, a new chapter begins. It turns out I haven’t lost the narrative. It’s simply an unexpected plot twist. I’ve been writing my family’s stories in these pages for years. I won’t let scary old Krazy Cells silence me. I plan to be well. And I plan to tell what happens next.
Warning: it may involve catheters.