I had my annual follow-up last Thursday...for prostate cancer. And the doctor said I was still doing fine: no sign of trouble, either in the blood test or in his manual exam. After pulling his huge finger out of me, he commented, "Feels great." I groused, "Well...maybe to you. But I'm glad to hear the news."
It's been ten years since I first received my "bad-news" diagnosis. And the joy and relief I felt from this week's appointment led me to come home and dig out the letter I sent a decade ago...the one where I let my friends and family and congregation know about my situation. I decided to share it with you again...this time with deep thanksgiving for a decade past of good living. The letter from back then:
January 15, 2010
I'm trying to think of a clever first line for this-but the muses are failing me. So, I'll just get to the point: the doctor says I have cancer. He got the news from the lab pathologist. And the lab pathologist found it in the Petri dish. And the Petri dish got it from those twelve bloody needles they stabbed into my prostate.
Suddenly I am juggling reams of information-and roller coasters of emotion. On one hand, I'm feeling good about some things: good that it is a very small tumor; good that this is a slow moving cancer; good that this malignancy is only in Stage One; good that highly effective cures are available; good that people are praying for me; good that I have health insurance and access to treatment facilities; good that I am otherwise in good health.
In fact, the optimistic, "let's get it solved" feelings have been outweighing the negative ones, almost from the beginning. While waiting (for a long time) for the results, I fortified myself with positive thinking, selective research, and literal interpretations of the phrase, "You'll be okay" uttered by sympathetic confidants. In fact, the only bad moment I had was back in early November when the doctor said, "Since your PSA is up to 4.2, looks like we need to take a biopsy for cancer." The nauseous feeling hit me right there in his office. But within two minutes, I had manned up, regained my composure, and started peppering him with questions about the situation. After all: anything can be fixed...right?
I had to wait a month and a half before they could get me in for the biopsy. Then I had to wait another ten days (until New Year's Eve) before the doctor called and announced that they found cancer. Then I had to wait another 12 days for them to take bone scans and other what-not stuff, to determine that it had not spread anywhere else. And all during this 'waiting' time, I locked in on the positive. After all: among all the malignancies, prostate cancer is known for its slowness and stupidity. It's really not that hard to feel superior to it-as long as you don't get spooked.
But even in habitats governed by prayer and positive thinking, other realities loiter and dark moods incubate. Treatments for prostate cancer are notorious for their debilitating side effects, particularly impotence and incontinence. A choice has to be made from among four major treatment options-and the decision is a gamble-with life and death consequences. Prostate cancer, oaf that it is, lingers as the second leading cause of cancer-death among men. Its detection is not to be treated indifferently. And even though I don't have to make a decision right away, the day is coming when I will have to face the facts and pick my poison from among the cures.
Even though I've been thinking "good thoughts" about all this since November, the darker moods have started creeping in the last couple days. They are still mild and transient: cloudy and gray mixtures of fear, sadness, and disappointment. Even in a best case scenario, which the doctor thinks will
the case, I will struggle in some way. At some point, there will be a loss of energy, a loss of function, a loss of time. And the loss won't be singularly my own. It will twist its way through my relationships and affect others: Jie, my family, my church, my colleagues. The possibility of having less to give to give away evokes grief.
But a mood is merely that: a mood. The primary damage of a blue mood is that it numbs one's spirituality. And in spirituality I hope not to be diminished. Without eschewing the gifts of conventional medicine, I yearn for the spirit of Jesus to be paramount in all this. True: Jesus doesn't make "calendar-based" guarantees. But his gifts of inexhaustible hope, joy, and love have been known to expand life's calendar time-and render its remaining oppressions virtually impotent. In other words, I aim to stick close to Christ. So, if you see me falter in this, pray for me and coax me back into his paths.
There is a part of me which wishes I had a more glamorous problem to confess: perhaps a broken leg from rescuing a child in a fire, or maybe a stomach virus contracted in the jungle during a mission trip, or a black eye because someone attacked me during a courageous and prophetic sermon. But alas, it is prostate cancer: disease of old geezers. It is suggested that 30% of men my age (55) have a few cells of it, whether they know it or not. And 70% of men over 70 have it. Turns out I'm just another old coot.
So dreams of glamour temporarily laid aside, let me close this epistle by enumerating my realistic wishes.
- I wish to be cured. That's a good possibility, and I may take up to a year or more (which I have the luxury of doing in my case) to decide the best path toward that cure.
- I wish to be made stronger and wiser through this experience. I expect to grow in my faith, my relationships, my pastoral skills, my patience, and even my physical health through all this.
- I wish to avoid doting on the problem. The major reasons for writing this letter are to honor my commitment to be open and honest with folks, head off rumors, and then move on to other topics. I don't plan to bring this subject up very often. The next time I call any attention to it will probably be in a Sunday letter whenever I need to update people about some treatment I've decided to get.
- I hope others are caring, but if people get overly sweet, it might creep me out and make me wonder if they know something I don't. If you are concerned or worried about me-or curious--just ask-I won't mind. And if it will help you to talk about your anxieties, I'll be glad to take the time. But if you are accustomed to being ornery, exasperated with me, or just generally disagreeable-by all means, continue. My only request is this: if you are a member of my church and you want someone to be your pastor besides me, please don't pray "Lord, get rid of him" and just leave it at that. To be on the safe side, pray thus: Lord, get him out of here AND give him a long career as a truck driver instead (or whatever you think I'd be good at.)
- I wish to be worthy of my place in the company of those who are battling cancer-of various types-and diseases and disabilities of all types. As I join this battlefield, I am awed by the people I see around me. Some are fighting fiercely, day by day, uncertainly beating back death. Others fight back fatigue and discouragement as they plod on against those chronic problems that are robbing them of opportunities. Others devote themselves to research and healing. And multitudes are taking the time to love and attend and pray with those who are besieged by illness and injuries.
Through my life, I have been surrounded by a cloud of heroes-people who have shown me the way to pray and persist and prevail. Many of you reading this letter are among my heroes-mentoring me in how to navigate the foibles and vulnerabilities of the body.
Thank you for reading this-and indulging me in this exercise of self-disclosure. If it helps anyone else put similar feelings or situations into words-or prayer-I am pleased. And finally, thanks be to God-for doctors and nurses and technicians and what they do, for family and friends and their presence, for people of faith and all they say and pray, and for the precious worth of each new day and each relationship. --Mike