Saturday, January 29, 2005

Radiant Sunshine

Toward The Sunlight (1910)
Paul Dougherty

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.

---J.B. Priestley

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.


jazzolog said...

Beginning A Pilgrimage

I hadn't noticed something until I sat in church yesterday reading the bulletin. There was the annual announcement of the choir's Shrove Tuesday Pancake Supper. Yummy, it's next week. But good grief, that means it will be Lent again. And there it is: my treatment schedule overlaps with Lenten penance, sacrifice and meditation, bringing me out into Holy Week. I'm not looking at the coincidence as a message from God, but rather an opportunity to know Him better. Father Michael advised, "Keep a journal," and I shall.

God of abundance, you have fed us with the bread of life and cup of salvation;
in Christ you have united us with one another and with all creation;
and you have made us one with all your people in heaven and on earth.
Now send us forth in the power of your Spirit,
that we may proclaim your redeeming love to the world
and continue for ever in the risen life of Christ our Savior.

jazzolog said...

A very dear old friend emailed me the other day, and maybe my answer will be of interest to you too~~~

"Still wishing you well during your 6 week ordeal and the cold. How ya feeling, anyway?


People ask me this all the time now. I'm most uncomfortable when the question is framed in some kind of pitying tone, but I haven't really wondered why until now...and it may turn out to be the most valuable aspect of this experience. Previously I've thought of the treatment series as just another medical process we go through. Physicals, shots, blood tests, X rays, that kind of thing. So please, no "poor-you" in your voice when you ask. But wait a minute: just what is happening here? The fact is I had surgery to remove a life-threatening entity...and either the team didn't get it all or else it was starting to spread somewhere. So now comes radiation. BUT, what's inside me is so minute no techology can detect exactly where it is. As a result, the oncologist is aiming the radiant sunshine where other guys before me have experienced this kind of thing. That doesn't mean where we're shooting is where it is. We won't know that, we can't know that until the 36 treatments are done. Well, what if we miss it? My understanding is this is it for radiation. We can't start over and shoot somewhere else. If this doesn't work, we have to go to the next stage...and that involves containment, rather than cure. Looked at from this angle, the matter appears rather more serious...and perhaps my cavalier attitude is the real cause of discomfort when people ask how I am. I have no symptoms that I can feel at all and I've tried not to think I'm battling for my life. When you read prostate obits, it always says "after a long battle." This hasn't felt like a battle...but maybe I've been denying what can be turned around toward a more powerful healing. In our society, increasingly one is left to one's own devices. The doctor, with years of study and experience, presents you with your options---and then you have to go out to hit the books or the Internet to come up with your decision in a matter of days. Having done so, you begin your therapy in a country that is terrified of cancer and in denial about death. There's a real but solitary psychological challenge here, and one I think I'm coming better to understand. As someone said to someone else the other day, "You're not going to die! You're going to plant the tomatoes this summer." The friend or relative means well, but may not be grappling with the true nature of Life---or even the real struggle to get an edible tomato. So that's how I'm feeling~~~and it looks like I still come up with a smile! :-)