Saturday, January 29, 2005
Toward The Sunlight (1910)
A permanent state of transition is man's most noble condition.
---Juan Ramon Jimenez
Any fool can be fussy and rid himself of energy all over the place, but a man has to have something in him before he can settle down and do nothing.
Attentiveness is the natural prayer of the soul.
---Nicolas De Malebranche
Thank you for reading this far, but let me warn you: despite the lovely title this piece is going to be about cancer. Like an increasing number of men my age, I was diagnosed with the prostate kind after a biopsy almost a year ago. Initially I started writing online about this in case I dropped off the Internet for a while to let people know what had happened. The response surprised me. People thanked me for being honest and asked to know more. Cancer is very scary and, like most people, I never wanted to think about it until I was forced to come to terms with it. Once one identifies himself, people start doing likewise with you...and soon you're sharing in a lot of personal stories. It's as if there's a Cancer Anonymous, only without any program or meetings. There probably are support groups somewhere---and certainly there are some interesting computer sites---but I suppose most of us settle for charting out a lonely course of treatment and life readjustment. Thank God for loved ones, and people who get closer now and really mean it.
Anyway, last May I had my prostate gland taken out, which was the first surgery of any kind I'd ever had. It was a big deal, but the war wasn't over. A couple months later a blood test showed my prostate-specific antigen (PSA) still had some microscopic cell activity going on, and 2 more readings months after that revealed it was neither diminishing or going away. At this point in our technology there's no way to see what is going on or where; but past experience has led urologists to believe that when this happens, it's because little specks of the disease got left behind or perhaps had begun to travel. That usually means the bladder. If nothing is revealed in the urine, the cancer's probably just starting up on the outside...and radiation is the therapy. I've begun my treatment, and regular daily exposure will begin Monday and continue for something like 7 weeks.
Through this entire ordeal no physician has offered a cause for my problem. We know one acquires illness, and even some cancers, by doing certain things that get you diseased. We know there are precautions. What about this? Doctors don't say. Did I do something? Is it genetic? How about environmental factors? Additives? My sex life? There remains great mystery about cancer. As a result, I for one cannot help but demonize the thing. It's my dark side come to claim me at last. It seems to know me...and what I do, what I hide, and how I play chess with Death. Does it feed on stress and guilt and sin? Before a fundamentalist comes in here to save me, let me emphasize I feel relatively guilt-free about this. When I was considering whether or not to go with mainstream treatment, I heard a lot from folks who believe in alternative methods...and many seemed to go the route that cancer is caused by ethical and/or physical neglect. I don't reject that notion. Life remains too interesting to rule out penance as medication.
You may recall a poem by John Tagbliabue that speaks of people in medical waiting rooms, sitting there amongst the old magazines and crappy TV shows or music on a radio. John said they look as if they are on a lonely cruise to an unknown destination. I'm becoming something of an expert on waiting rooms. There's a sort of descent involved. I thought my urologist's waiting room was a challenge. I even told him last time, "The wonderful thing about your waiting room is by the time I get to see you, I no longer care whether I live or die." But nothing prepared me for the oncologist's. Here we have people with tumors, and presumably getting radiation. Many of us don't know where the disorders came from, nor are we thrilled with the treatment procedure. I just went through 2 days that involved torture similar to Guantanamo in getting the therapy set up. Ultimately I began to feel as glum as the other folks I saw waiting around. What was happening to my sense of humor? I began to get annoyed and looking for someone to blame. The clerical seemed a good place to start.
Not good. So how should I look at this part of my life? At this point, I am delighted to have as a friend of 30 years a woman who, over that time, has progressed from agency social worker to acknowledged counselor---and even healer---of great understanding and skill. This friend gave me wonderful advice during preparation for and recovery from surgery, and she continues to help as I face the ray gun. She says, "Think of it like radiant sunshine...which after all is what it really is." The idea has clicked with me. How better to treat a scary thing hiding in the dark than to shine a light on it? And hopefully some of that light will spill into the corners of that sad waiting room.