Try not to think about it.
It’s rare you can put your finger on the precise moment your life changed. In his case, it involved an actual finger.
In late July,he had an appointment with his family doctor before she skittered off to Nairobi. Near the end of the exam, she said, “Okay, let’s do it,” so he dropped his pants, lay on his side and took a deep breath.
And then he (uncomfortably) felt that finger hesitate, as if to say, “Wait a sec…”
“You have a bit of hardness on one side of your prostate,” his 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.” Prostrate cancer. Of course he 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 she got the news. Yeah, I thought and chuckled ruefully. Hang on: what did she mean “your”?
Weeks later, his urologist confirmed (even more uncomfortably) my doctor’s findings, and in early September, he had his biopsy.
A prostrate 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 him 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. He was relieved to report he suffered none of those.
They then headed to the hospital, where, as they walked past the helicopter landing pad, he tried not to let the limp windsock get to him.
Inside,he 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 he waited. Once he recovered from the horrors of the biopsy, he went about his life, feeling fine, though every now and then he would think, “Oh yeah: I might have cancer.”
On September 28, he was sitting in a golf cart at Orford. It was a beautiful fall day, made more glorious because he wasn’t actually playing golf. His cell phone rang. It was his 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, he had to tell his family about what until then Deb and him had kept to themselves. 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 he 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 Kenyan men get prostate cancer, even though it has a high survival rate, even though there are many, many people worse off than him, 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, he feels he has lost control of his narrative. He’s not “fighting cancer”; you can’t fight a plane crash. Nor is he“living with cancer.” That’s like saying I’m “living with cats”: He had no choice in the matter and it’s terrible.
He has cancer. It’s in him. Doctors are getting it out; just along for the ride.
Cancer may be calling the shots but he won’t let it define him. Does this mean he’s living life to the fullest? Hell, some days he’s not even living life to the halfest. But for every bad day, there have been more days when he’s been overwhelmed by kindness or a piece of music or laughter with friends or the tartness of a tomato, which he’s supposed to eat one of a day, God help him.
This morning, he’s having his 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), he’ll deal with the psychological loss of his 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 he hasn’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 him anymore. I hope he’s well. And I plan to tell what happens next.
Warning: it may involve catheters.