When I first told people that I had been diagnosed with prostate cancer, the reactions to my news ran all over the emotional spectrum. My friends were shocked, especially since prostate cancer was considered to be an “old mans disease” and I was a relatively young 48. My family was pretty surprised also, considering the disease was not prevalent in our lineage. A history of prostate cancer is one of the first things your doctor will ask about, and usually there is a father or uncles that also were stricken. Not so with me. Weirdly, there was nothing there.
But I think one of the most curious reactions is when I told older people that I had the disease. Many, but not all, didn’t think it was that big a deal. Their friends had had it, and seemed to be doing just fine. In their eyes, it was a “good cancer” because you could live with it and continue a productive life. I think that perception was driven both by a lack of knowledge, and what the person they knew with the cancer was willing to divulge. More than likely, that person didn’t really want to tell them everything they were going through.
Well, lucky for you, dear readers, I am here to tell you all about this particular affliction, and that there is nothing good about it. I will break down the disease into early and late stages, and show you why none is this is very fun. Probably not a lot of laughs in this blog, but some of this stuff has been bugging me for awhile.
There is no good cancer
Now I realize that some cancers are worse than others. Some have a much higher mortality rate. My brother in law Mike Vos was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer in February 2001, and after a courageous fight, passed away in November of that same year. It was awful watching him waste away. But the difference in mortality rates and the difference in severity of symptoms in different cancers doesn’t make any of them good. There are just different degrees of bad.
And here’s why. When your doc tells you,”You have cancer,” your life is forever changed. Even if you fight it off, and are declared cancer free, somewhere, in the back of your mind, there is the constant fear of recurrence. Every annual physical, every lab visit, that cancer thing is lurking, ready to pounce on your healthy life and make it hell again. As a prostate cancer survivor, your only as healthy as your next PSA test. It’s always there.
Early stage prostate cancer is not good cancer, either.
If you are a stage one prostate cancer patient, your prognosis for cure is 100%. Yes, you read that right. 100%. But here’s the explanation behind that statistic. That means your cancer was totally encapsulated inside the prostate, and then you had your prostate removed so it couldn’t spread. And you know what? Having your prostate removed is not like having your appendix out, or having your tonsils removed. It’s not even like having a kidney removed, because you have another one of those and a human can live with only one kidney. No, having your prostate removed causes some serious issues, like incontinence, impotence, and no more ejaculate. Now that doesn’t sound like that big a deal compared to losing your life, but try telling that to a guy in his 50s that has to deal with those issues for the rest of his life.
The leader of the Survivors Association that I’m a part of is an 85 year old man who had surgery when he was 62. He’s never had a recurrence, and was basically cured with his surgery. But try telling him prostate cancer is a “good cancer.” He has been dealing with the side effects for over 20 years. He’s a wonderful gentleman, a really nice guy, and he would probably still have to resist the urge to punch you in the face.
I wonder if a double mastectomy breast cancer survivor would consider her cancer to be a “good cancer?” Probably not.
Advanced prostate cancer is REALLY not a good cancer
Advanced prostate cancer is basically prostate cancer that has grown beyond the margins of the prostate, so the PSA continues to rise. There is no cure for advanced prostate cancer, only treatments that delay the spread of the disease. Eventually those treatments fail, and then the cancer metastasizes to the bones and organs. The good news is that prostate cancer is a slow disease, and usually the patient has years, instead of months before it is fatal. So, instead of your doc telling you have 6 months to live, depending on how you react to treatments, you could live from 3 to 10 years. It all depends on how aggressive you particular brand of the disease is. But, if treatments start to fail, like mine have, 3 to 5 years is about the norm. And there is nothing good about that.
Being an advanced prostate cancer survivor, I’ve pretty much come to grips with what is in the future for me. What hurts now, what really gets to me is the effect it has on my family, and especially my wife, Holly. We’ve tried to stay upbeat, and we have a sense of humor, but we also have what I call “gulp” moments, when you have to swallow hard and fight back the tears. We had a couple of those yesterday.
We did a little road trip therapy to a restaurant in Holland that we really like. Holly looked over at a family sitting next to us, a big family with kids, grandkids, and grandparents all sitting together enjoying the chaos of each other’s company. And she told me, “That is probably never gonna happen for us.” Gulp. And then on the drive home, she took my hand and squeezed it hard, which always means she is struggling with something. I looked over at her, and there is a tear tracing down her cheek. I look at her, and I know. And she tells me. “I don’t want to be alone.” Double gulp. Moments like that happen, we tear up, we get over it, we move on. But those moments are hard, and most people don’t ever experience that.
So, if anyone ever tells you that someone has a “good cancer” tell them this.
There is no such thing.
Thanks for reading.