I found out I had prostate cancer 4 years ago on a rainy day in early June.
It didn’t come as a surprise. For several months, I had lived with the possibility that cancer -- the terrifying Big C that had taken my father, threatened my mother, and was in the process of taking several former work colleagues -- now had come looking for me.
And sitting there, holding my wife’s hand in the Bad News Room of my urologist’s office, I listened to my doctor’s calm, reassuring words flow over me while the soothing rumble of an early-summer thunderstorm murmured outside. As he delivered the verdict I had expected, I felt a curious mixture of fear, uncertainty and -- strangely -- gratitude and guilt.
When the spectral face of cancer had first appeared -- summoned by a troubling lab result that detected a high prostate-specific antigen (PSA) count, a possible sign that cancer had penetrated my prostate gland -- I did some quick research.
“If you’re going to have cancer, prostate cancer is the one to have,” I read. It’s slow-growing, slow to spread, and has the highest survival rate of virtually all cancers.
And it’s most commonly found in older men. In fact, one reputable source said researchers estimate that 80% of men that die past the age of 70 have undetected prostate cancer, which neither shortened their lifespans nor impacted their quality of life.
That offered some reassurance, particularly in light of the experiences of two former newspaper colleagues who were waging, at that very moment, very courageous and very public battles against more virulent -- and deadly -- forms of the disease. One suffered from a glioblastoma, a brain tumor that always kills. Another had stage IV esophageal cancer that had spread to his liver. In the end, neither survived.
By comparison, I realized, I was one lucky hombre. The comparison made me grateful -- and guilty.
My route to that moment in the Bad News Room had been a tortured one.
When my PSA count had soared, my longtime primary care doc quickly referred me to a local urologist.
Working methodically, he ordered more PSA tests before deciding a biopsy was necessary to get to the bottom (ahem!) of things. The procedure called for inserting into my rectum a rod equipped with a gadget that removed small slivers from throughout the prostate to test for cancer.
The first attempt, which was every bit as unpleasant as it sounds, was inconclusive. A second biopsy then was ordered -- after an interminable 3-month wait to “allow the body to heal.”
And now the results were in, and my wife and I were summoned to the doctor’s office for the results. We were ushered into an area of the office away from the usual examining rooms.
We entered a comfy space that looked more like a living room than a consulting area. On top of every table sat a box of tissue.
“This must be the Bad News Room,” I told my wife, who wordlessly squeezed my arm.
The doctor was all business -- unemotional and entirely professional. Yes, the biopsy had revealed five cancerous lesions.
He explained the Gleeson scale of rating lesions -- a technical conversation I only half followed. Then he delivered the bottom line.
The cancer was “moderately aggressive,” falling in the upper range of the 1-10 Gleeson scale. “That means we need to do something, not just wait and observe,” he said. Fortunately, the cancer appeared to be confined to the prostate. We had caught it in time.
“It could go either way,” he said. “In your case, I’d lean toward surgery. I think you have every reason to expect a successful outcome.”
I didn’t hesitate.
“I want the damned thing out,” I said flatly. He nodded.
So be it. The Big C and me -- a fight to the finish.
Photo Credit: gokhanilgaz / E+ via Getty Images
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