It has been a week of baby steps and milestones for me since D (for ‘diagnosis’) Day. I have made no further progress into the Understanding Prostate Cancer booklet I was presented with, having swiftly come to appreciate that holiday reading it ain’t. The sterile descriptions, while important to know, need to be tempered with good news stories of successful recoveries and reassembled lives. If you try to digest the raw clinical data undiluted, you risk sliding into a world of corrosive self pity you can ill afford.
Good news anecdotes about prostate cancer are certainly plentiful and encouraging. But details about the pertinent PSA and Gleason scores, which right now are of most concern to me, are usually missing. I take after my apostolic namesake and tend to believe what I can see with my own eyes or understand through the application of logic and reason. So I have to make a decision to take comfort from the anecdotes and to believe, despite misgivings, that the future looks bright. This is not an easy thing for a doubting Thomas to do. But when you have cancer you learn a lot of new stuff about yourself that you didn’t know before D-Day.
A recurring theme of the past week is telling people with expertise or experience of cancer about my respective PSA and Gleason scores of 9.5 and 9. The reaction is always the same – either awkward silence or gentle agreement that it is “not good”. I can almost hear Corporal Jones of Dad’s Army inside their heads: “Don’t Panic! Don’t Panic!” he screams, as they maintain a straight face. So I don’t put them in the uncomfortable position of pursuing what they really think about it or whether they know anyone who has recovered from such apparently unfavourable odds.
To be fair, one friend did know someone who made a full recovery from prostate cancer with very similar PSA/Gleason scores. As well as that, Eileen on the Irish Cancer Society helpline speculated that my scores could indicate that the cancer is “locally advanced” but confined to the prostate. It may be a long shot but there is really no point trying to second guess the bone and MRI scans, of which I have still heard nothing official.
Catherine, the prostate nurse in the Mater, told me that hopefully I’ll have the scans in the next two or three weeks. Bruising from the biopsy, three weeks ago, would show up on scans and would be difficult to distinguish from the cancer itself. It didn’t occur to me at the time to ask how this affects a bone scan. But I waited long enough to get the biopsy and then, again, its result. As much as I dislike waiting, patience is a skill I am learning and I reckon it will take me another couple of weeks to clear the decks mentally for the approaching fight.
Picking up the phone to the cancer helpline was a hard call to make, being my first practical, external acknowledgement of my condition. I could have been put straight through to a man who has been through what I have just started. But I was not ready for that yet, telling myself I should read up more first. Another early milestone was reaching out to the ARC Cancer Support Centre, in Eccles Street.
Both Catherine and Eileen had advised me to contact ARC as they offer good support services to cancer patients and their families. On checking their website, I found that ARC is an excellent facility, providing practical and emotional supports like counselling, relaxation therapies and a drop-in centre, all conveniently located on the same street as the Mater Hospital. So, following an initial phone call, I visited ARC to check it out, introduce myself in person and cross the threshold into the cancer support community.
Waiting for the door to be answered, I found myself feeling the role of cancer patient beginning to fit, acceptance settling. Mary opened the door and invited me in to the interior of comfortable seating and shelves of books about living with cancer. Of equal value were newspapers and other reading material, because cancer subject matter gets tiresome after a while. The centre immediately struck me as an ideal place of respite for Colette during the difficult days approaching when I will be in the Mater across the street.
Chrissie joined us as I briefly outlined my case, including my PSA/Gleason scores, which drew the by-now predictable response. I described how I felt I was braced for my cancer by seeing my parents dying of it and my concerns for Colette, as she had not experienced the disease this closely before. I knew what she was about to be faced with and that she would need more support than I could provide. But Mary and Chrissie said she is welcome to drop into the centre any time, if only to get a break from the hospital ward to have a cup of tea and to read a paper in the conservatory, or to talk to somebody in an informal environment. There may be things she needs to get off her chest that she cannot talk to me about and these are the invaluable supports that ARC is there to offer.
Catherine, the prostate nurse, had recommended an ARC yoga class for men with prostate cancer, to help prepare physically for surgery and mentally for the time leading up to and following it. I have always wanted to try yoga but I never did anything about it. Classes in the community are almost entirely made up of women. I like the company of women but being a token male in a room full of leotards and leg warmers would make me feel like a bit of a girl’s blouse. Now that I belong to an exclusive club I might as well avail of whatever silver lining it makes available and I start yoga classes today.
The yoga class will also be my first time to meet other prostate cancer victims – another milestone. I can’t help thinking of Meat Loaf in the movie Fight Club, where he attended a support group for men with testicular cancer. Yoga won’t be as spectacular as a group of alienated, stripped-to-the-wait men beating the shite out of each other in a basement. But the tenuous association with one of my favourite films of all time is still pretty cool!