A retired college professor with a passion for music, art, travel and soccer, Tony was thankful for the quiet support of his son and domestic partner to get him through three cancer scares.
I was 65 and had just retired from a long teaching career. Over the years, occasionally I had seen tiny blood stains in my underwear, but I thought nothing of it. Then, one evening while having dinner with my son, I went to the restroom to pee and started urinating blood. I knew there was nothing normal about that.
I went to a urologist who assumed it was my prostate and checked it out. But it was fine. Then, during a subsequent appointment he did a cystoscopy to look inside my bladder. I’m lying there on the table and I hear him say, “Oh shit.” That’s not a very comforting thing to hear from your doctor. He let me know there was something in the bladder that was potentially cancer but had to be tested to be certain. He took some tissue samples and sent them off to the lab. I was a little worried, but I was getting ready to spend a few weeks traveling out west with my domestic partner and just did my best to focus on our plans.
Before we left, I called him for the results. Stage 1 bladder cancer. I remember when I heard the news, I had this sinking feeling of hopelessness. I didn’t understand what Stage 1 meant, and I just kept asking myself “Why now?” and “Why me?” My grandson had just been born and I worried I wouldn’t get to see him grow up. Also, some years before, a friend of mine had retired and died within a week.
Cancer Times Two
The doctor scheduled me for surgery to remove the tumor and I spent two nights in the hospital. Everything seemed fine, except they thought maybe I had a heart murmur too and that needed to be checked out. After the heart issue was checked and I went home, I couldn’t pee. It turns out I had blood clots in my bladder from the surgery. I went back and spent another two nights in the hospital. The nurse said I needed to drink more water. Eventually I could pee normally again and went home. I remember being so disappointed that I had to miss a family wedding in St. Martin.
Because we had gone on our trip out west before my surgery, I could combat my unpleasant medical memories with pleasant travel memories. That helped put the experience behind me. For two years, I had to go every three months for check-ups, then every 6 months, then once a year. I was anxious before every visit, wanting to hear that everything was okay. You never know what they might find. After four or five years when it hadn’t recurred, I stopped thinking about it, but I did keep hearing about others who had had a recurrence.
Then, after eight years, when I went for my annual check-up with the urologist, he saw it again. It was a small tumor, also Stage 1, but I would need surgery again. And, like the last time, I had blood clots in my bladder after the surgery because I didn’t drink enough water again. You would think I would have learned.
After the second surgery, they checked my prostate, and took a few tissue samples. That’s when, weeks later, they discovered I had Stage 2 prostate cancer. The protocol for my type of cancer was “watchful waiting”, but the cells in my tissue samples were so cancerous that they opted for a more aggressive approach. I took a pill for six months to shrink the prostate and prepare me for radiation, and then 42 sessions of radiation.
The radiation was really problematic. You have to lie on your stomach and stay perfectly still so as not to interfere with their ability to direct the radiation to the right place. But I was so anxious, I couldn’t lay still. My chest started hurting and I was breathing so heavily. I was so afraid they were going to miss. So I had to trick myself into doing it. I would think of the beach, of my grandkids. They were professionals and knew what they were doing, but I was so uncomfortable and so worried about what might happen if I moved. Why couldn’t I just relax get comfortable?
After radiation treatments, I would go with my domestic partner to the beach club. I’m not really a beach person, but to hear the ocean and to just sit with the breeze and the noise of the kids running around, it was so joyful. It really helped me to feel better after the treatment.
Needing More Time
When I was at the doctor’s office receiving my diagnosis of prostate cancer, the door to another consultation room was ajar and there was an older couple there. You could tell they had just gotten very bad news. I felt so sorry for them. I was going to make it, but you could tell that he wasn’t and the wife was going to suffer for years. That really stuck with me.
Once the radiation was done, I was back on a schedule of every three months going for check-ups. Then 6 months. I still go every six months. My PSA levels are good and no sign of the bladder cancer returning. But I still think about it. There was no family history of cancer. My father had an enlarged prostate, but it wasn’t cancerous, and my mother’s great aunt had cancer, but she wasn’t in my direct line. So where did my cancer come from? I like to eat bacon, and I know that’s bad for you, but did that cause my cancer? I’ve always been surrounded by smokers, at the university and even my ex-wife, but did second-hand smoke give me cancer?
I don’t really worry about it coming back now because I am being monitored so closely that I know it will be caught early if it does. With early detection there’s easy intervention. But when I was first diagnosed, I had some mild depression. I wasn’t angry or feeling self-pity, I just felt I needed more time. I wanted to see my grandson grow up. And, I had more academic writing I wanted to finish, more life I wanted to live. And I worried I wouldn’t have the time.
Beating the Odds
I’m sort of a loner and didn’t tell my son or my brothers until right before my first bladder surgery. I just don’t like sharing, particularly that sort of news. The woman I was with, my domestic partner for decades, she was my main support. And my son, when I finally told him. But mostly my process was to think it through and figure out how to deal with it on my own. I didn’t need verbal comforting and made my decisions myself, but my family was supportive just by being there.
It was interesting. At radiation, you see a lot of the same patients every time you go. Some were very conversational, but most stuck to themselves. I guess a lot of us guys deal with our problems silently. Occasionally, when someone was all finished with treatment, we’d have a cheery send off for him, but mostly we pretty much sat in silence. I think men in general, and black men in particular, get by with denial. We like to be macho about not being sick. Denial is like magic — it lets you pretend it doesn’t exist. When I was seeing blood stains, my domestic partner had been telling me for months to go get it checked out, but I guess I didn’t really want to know.
When I was born, I must have been very sickly because no one ever expected me to survive. I don’t know why — no one seemed to want to inform me. Personally, I didn’t expect to live past 30. But here I am. My heart skips a beat from time to time, and there was one point (4 decades ago) when they thought I had leukemia, but I didn’t. So, I don’t really worry about the cancer coming back. I figure, I’ve already beaten the odds.