Prostate Cancer Journal – Day 1 “You’ve got cancer.” Dr. Price said it in a very matter-of-fact tone. No sugar coated, “I have some bad news for you.” Nothing to wash it down. Bad news, served straight up without a garnish.
I could hear Charlotte choking back tears. I couldn’t look at her. I suppressed a strong urge to throw up. We spent the next five minutes discussing the Gleason Grading Scale, success rates, surgery and what happens “after.” Then stumbled out into the bright, fluorescent-lit hallway and walked like zombies toward the bank of gun-metal gray elevators.
The doors slammed shut behind us with a metallic CLANK like the sound of prison cell. She cried softly and hugged me so tight it gave me the impression she was afraid I might float away. My body felt like lead. I wasn’t going anywhere.
“It’ll be ok,” I mumbled.
I didn’t know who I was trying to convince.
The day after my diagnosis my wife Charlotte summed up prostate cancer pretty well: “It’s about the worst disease a man can get.”
I corrected her without missing a beat.
“No,” I said. “It’s not about the worst disease a man can get. It is the worst disease a man can get.”
She had no idea.
I knew the morning of my diagnosis that my life — our life together — was in for a huge change. This was big — ATOM BOMB big. The life I had known when I walked into that exam room was officially over. I was now the guy with cancer. Worst of all, I didn’t know where to turn or what to do next. By the time we walked out of the doctor’s office, I was just a robot going through the motions. I fell back on the only thing that even came close to making me feel like a man. I held my wife in an empty elevator and told her everything was going to be OK. The truth is, I’d never felt so alone in my life. I didn’t have a clue what I was talking about.
Charlotte was desperate and determined to help me. At first, I was just as desperate and determined not to let her help. I could handle this by myself. It was as if I had stepped fully formed out of a celluloid frame in a John Ford western.
Face it, men are different. This goes a lot deeper than what you learned in fifth grade health class. We think differently. We react differently and we deal with difficult situations differently.
If someone you love has been diagnosed with prostate cancer, don’t give up. With knowledge and understanding, you can help him survive and possibly build an even stronger relationship.
Here are five things every woman should know about the illness that affects one in six men.
1. He Isn’t Going To Die In The Next 15 Minutes
After you get past the shock of diagnosis, consider this: Prostate cancer survival rates are very high and his chances are excellent. According to the American Cancer Society:
• The 5-year survival rate is 97%
• The 10-year survival rate is 79%
• The 15-year survival rate is 57%
Compared to other forms of malignant carcinoma the prognosis for prostate cancer is really very good. It is nearly 100% survivable if detected early.
The disease is diagnosed every 2.6 minutes and it knows someone in every field of endeavor — from punks (Joey Ramone) to poets (Robert Frost) and politicians (Rudy Guliani) to pundits (David Brinkley). Prostate cancer is the most common cancer in American men. It is the second leading cause of cancer death among men (lung cancer is number one).
2. He’ll be Depressed.
Your guy will go through the five stages of grief (denial-anger-bargaining-depression-acceptance) in no particular order. He may start with depression and then work his way back to denial. Everyone has a different experience. One thing is certain. At some point he’ll be depressed.
Some men are depressed immediately after diagnosis. Others get depressed when they encounter the by-products of surgery like erectile dysfunction (ED) (impotence). ED is common among most prostate cancer patients. For some men it’s temporary. For others it’s permanent. You can help by encouraging him to become more knowledgeable about the disease or suggesting a night out with the guys. A little male bonding can go a long way towards lifting his spirits. Encourage your man to talk about what’s going on and how he’s feeling about his progress. Your conversation may not turn his mountains into mole hills, but you can definitely show him they can be climbed.
3. He Doesn’t Know As Much As You Think
Just because he’s a guy doesn’t mean he knows anything about his prostate. Most men can’t even tell you where it’s located, or what it does. You can do a lot just by helping him answer his questions. Go with him to the bookstore, library, or help him search online. Ask your friends if they know anyone else experiencing prostate cancer and talk with them. Your goal is to make him the best informed prostate cancer patient possible.
There is a lot of excellent material out there, but there’s so much it can be overwhelming. The “Bible” on prostate cancer is, A Primer on Prostate Cancer: The Empowered Patient’s Guide by Stephen B. Strum and Donna Pogliano. It’s a very detailed and well researched book that will probably tell you more than you want to know.
You can also find plenty of prostate cancer-specific information at WebMD (www.webmd.com). The postings on the WebMd prostate cancer message board are very informative, educational and enlightening. The “brothers” on this board will also answer your specific questions about anything related to this illness.
4. He’ll Fight the Disease and Maybe You Along With It
You’re in for a few arguments. Men and women really don’t see things the same way. My first instinct was to adopt a “me-against-the-world” attitude. It didn’t do either of us any good. Charlotte helped me overcome this by fostering a “team” spirit. After a while we became a dedicated force ready to navigate our way through the prostate cancer maze.
That’s not to say that your guy will always be open to your ideas or suggestions. He won’t. Give him a little room. If you’re met with resistance try again later. Allow him to get used to each new situation before he’s forced to accept something else. Let him negotiate the pace and guide him toward the best treatment, care and advice.
Prostate Cancer Journal – Day 28 — Charlotte and I left the doctor’s office and headed back to work. We had one of the biggest fights we’d had since I was diagnosed.
“So, what are you thinking you’d like to eat next week?” she asked. It was a simple question, but it hit me funny.
“I dunno,” I mumbled as I threaded my way through traffic. “Angel hair pasta, stuff that’s easy to digest.”
My response caught her funny and her lip began to quiver. All I could think was how insignificant food was when I was facing the toughest battle of my life.
“What do I want to eat? How about a plate of cancer with a side of chemo?” I caught myself before the words came out.
I yelled. We argued. The conversation centered on my feelings that I was headed to a funeral and her feelings that she wasn’t helping. Is there any good way to deal with this?
Cancer is a topic they never covered on Leave it to Beaver when I was growing up. I don’t remember Ward ever discussing it with June.
5. He’ll Recover Faster With an Attitude of Gratitude
Groucho Marx said he’d never join a club that would have him as a member. That’s prostate cancer: the club no man wants to join. It isn’t easy coming to terms with the fact that you have prostate cancer. Charlotte had a lot to do with my acceptance of the disease. First, she accepted me for what I was. She embraced every stage of recovery and provided me the support to clear every road block. Time, at least to her, was the cherished commodity. As far as she was concerned, difficulties like impotence could be overcome. The important thing was that we had been given a second chance.
Her unconditional love helped me develop an attitude of gratitude. Most people are harder on themselves than they are on others. I expected — no, demanded — a fast and efficient recovery. What I got was a slow and inefficient recovery that allowed me to develop a better appreciation for good health, good friends and a wonderful wife.
Prostate Cancer Journal – Day 357
Charlotte and I were making our first cross-country road trip after surgery and we talked about my recovery and how we were handling it.
“Do you ever have a day when you don’t think about this?” she asked.
“I like to focus on the future,” I said. “The other stuff depresses me.”
“Like what?” she asked.
“Impotence. It makes me so frustrated … ,” my voice drifting off until it was completely covered by the whine of the tires on the dry pavement.
“What does Dr. Lee say?” she continued, trying not to sound too concerned.
“He says it could take up to 36 months. After that it’s anyone’s guess,” I said.
“It’s early then,” she said. “Give it time.”
“But, if you really push him he’ll say, ‘Mr. Hill I am sorry. We had to take one-half of your nerves in the surgery. We did our best.'”
“So, what does that mean?” she asked.
“It means we’ll have to wait and see,” I added.
“Is ‘wait and see’ OK, with you?” she said.
“It’ll have to be,” I said.”I’m fairly happy with my progress, but unfortunately the surgery wasn’t complete.”
“Wasn’t complete?” she said. “What didn’t they get?”
“My memories,” I answered. “I remember what it was like in B.C. — Before Cancer. I want things back the way they were — at least the way they were without cancer.”
“Those were good times,” she said. “We’ll have plenty more. Wait and see.”
With those words, she confirmed what I suspected for some time. Charlotte had fully embraced the “new normal” of life after prostate cancer. She hadn’t just accepted it — she had wrapped her arms around it and had it in a big bear hug. I knew that soon there wouldn’t be a “new normal” — there would only be the “normal” that we had built for ourselves like settlers in the New World.
We continued our drive that afternoon. As we sped past the fields and farmhouses of Mississippi, I thought that Charlotte was probably right. It was time to embrace the “new normal” and disconnect from the “old.” It wasn’t coming back anyway. The future lay ahead of us like the slender ribbon of road that would carry us home. The old B.C. days grew dim in the rearview mirror. Soon, very soon, we wouldn’t see them at all.
Excerpted with permission from Dead Men Don’t Have Sex. A Guy’s Guide to Surviving Prostate Cancer, by Robert Hill. $15.99 on amazon.com
Robert “Bob” Hill, 54, is a six-year prostate cancer survivor who lives in Colleyville, Texas with his wife Charlotte. They own a public relations firm and produce The Boomer Brief, www.boomerbrief.com, a web site dedicated to keeping Baby Boomers current on the world around them.