Thinking about your own death is not a pleasant pastime. But with the possibility that I had prostate cancer -- a disease that strikes 1 in 8 men during their lifetime -- I had no choice but to wonder if my clock was winding down.
Luckily for me, when I went searching for answers, I was given strong reasons to be optimistic. When I learned that the disease has a 97.5% 5-year survival rate, the knot in my stomach relaxed a bit, and I stopped wondering where my wake should be held.
I don’t mean to be flippant about the situation. Fear is a common and quite natural reaction to the news you have prostate cancer. Not only do you wonder if you’re going to survive the damned thing, but you also have to face the possibility of losing some -- if not all -- of your sexual function.
Nothing funny about that.
But when I learned that being diagnosed with prostate cancer was not always the death sentence I had feared initially, I obtained the single most powerful weapon you can have when you wake up at 3 a.m. wondering how many more days you have on Good Planet Earth.
Even the news on the sexual performance front was not as devastating as I feared. Without going into too much detail, I learned that the general rule of thumb is that what you have going in is likely to be what you have when all is said and done.
My urologist confirmed that fact. He might have made it easier on both of us if he had approached it in a more guy-to-guy manner, but that wasn’t his way. To be fair, I’m sure he was constrained by the presence of my wife, who was sitting attentively beside me during our consultation.
“If you have strong erections going in,” he said in a carefully neutral tone of voice, “you stand a better chance of having them coming out. Of course, the reverse is also true.”
That’s not exactly the kind of Knute-Rockne-let’s-win-one-for-the-Gipper speech that fills you full of fight for the ordeal ahead. But it was enough to reassure me that my remaining days on earth would not be lived as a eunuch.
Such assurances might not mean much to a prostate cancer patient in his 30s or even 40s. But to a guy languishing in his mid-60s, with a 30-year marriage in progress and two grown children, it could have been worse.
When we discussed surgeons, he recommended two -- one whose expertise was in removing the prostate with as little ill effects as possible, including preserving the nerves that control sexual function. The other was an oncological surgeon who specialized in getting the cancer. I chose the latter
A younger guy oriented a different way might have made a different choice. But I had done enough homework to make what I believed was an informed choice. Besides, I knew myself well enough -- I’m a worrier, a glass-half-empty kind of guy. I didn’t relish the idea of living with the dread that the doctors hadn’t got all the cancer, that it might rear its evil head at some point in the future. I’ve never regretted the decision I made.
Another benefit of taking careful notes and compiling a lot of information about the disease -- as a former newsman, old habits die hard -- is that I have become, with no effort on my part, a comforting shoulder for newly diagnosed friends to lean on.
A few months after my operation, I got a call from a good buddy I’ve known for 35 years.
“Well, I’m about to join your exclusive club,” he said. “I just got the news that I have prostate cancer. How much trouble am I in?”
And because I had been through the grinder myself -- and armed with the facts and figures that sustained me -- I had the great satisfaction of telling him what he most wanted to hear.
“It’s not a death sentence, brother,” I said. “You and about 3.2 million American men are living with prostate cancer even as we speak. Take a deep breath. We’ll get through this.”
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