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I don’t want readers to think I’m being narcissistic in writing these posts about my cancer or how it has affected me. Sure, I can be accused of being all sorts of things for writing my other posts, and a narcissist is the least of them. I’m sharing these because I felt — I hoped —others might benefit from my experiences: men and their partners. I think partners (be they men or women) should be as fully informed and engaged about what happens and what to expect as the patient.
I found a lot of medical and pseudo-medical (read: quack) advice and descriptions online about prostate cancer, symptoms, and its treatment, but not much of a personal nature. Maybe I didn’t search far enough, but what I wanted to read was what it meant to the person who received the diagnosis and the treatment. How does it feel to wake up every day and look in the mirror, knowing you have cancer? What goes through a person’s mind as they get wheeled into surgery? Or sit for hours in a thin hospital gown, among strangers, awaiting treatment? How should I prepare for these events?
Knowing the technical details and the biology was, of course, important, but how it affected a life in progress mattered equally or more to me. So I decided to post my own.
I’ve tried to document my experiences and emotions in these posts as honestly and openly as I can. It isn’t easy: I’m unaccustomed to writing for the public about myself and the details of my life except in a somewhat removed or neutral manner (like my posts on shaving or my reading). I am normally a very private person when it comes to my body and was reluctant to even mention the diagnosis to close friends and relatives at first. I was raised with the typical inhibitions of a suburban, middle-class, Anglo-Saxon family, and we didn’t talk about body parts, especially those related to sex. Admittedly, that was a long time ago — the Fifties and Sixties often seem like another world, imagined in a book or movie, rather than lived — but the reluctance to do so now remains.
And there’s also the feeling of guilt you get when you get diagnosed with cancer, as if it’s something that’s your fault, something you did to deserve it. A punishment like a parking or speeding ticket. You don’t want to admit to having it, and when you do, you feel like some teenager admitting pregnancy (getting or causing it) after all those parental talks about sex and birth control.
Cancer makes you dependent, and for someone as stubbornly independent as I am, that’s uncomfortable. I can be the caregiver and the support provider, I can shoulder the burden of care for others with Stoic aplomb but accepting that care from others is something I’m not used to. It makes me want to downplay my symptoms and my concerns, so I don’t bother anyone, or put them out.
I’m also normally healthy — I’ve never had major surgery or even broken a bone before this, rarely even suffer colds — and it feels awkward to suddenly be so dependent on doctors and nurses, like I don’t really deserve their attention or solicitude and should just get well on my own.
I also do it because as a writer and editor, this is how I conquer my own anxieties and fears. Writing is a thinking process that is also meditative. I mull the words, their meaning, their place in a sentence, and whether how I place them makes sense or has impact. In doing so, when writing about myself I can almost look at my own experiences in the unemotional abstract. It is remarkably calming to do so.
I hope it doesn’t come across as morbid, but I also find writing about mortality — my own in particular — gives me the opportunity to think about death and dying it in a less emotional, more detached manner. I haven’t much literature in my own library about it to offer me direction: I have some of the Stoics and other classical philosophers, and some secular Buddhist writing, but nothing contemporary. Besides, I’d rather be reading a good novel, or some history or science than a book about death.
Our culture (at least my part of it) doesn’t talk a lot about death and dying — talking about it invokes some sort of superstition that brings it upon us, so instead we keep quiet — and as a non-religious person, I have no comforting mythology about death to fall back on. I have to come to terms with it on my own.
None of us know when we will die, and we live with that uncertainty unclouding our daily lives. Death seldom enters our mundane thoughts. But when you have cancer, it’s something you cannot help but consider; a road to an end you can see. Right now I don’t feel any great anxiety about death, but the journey towards it can be unsettling because I remain unsure of where this is taking me and what to expect. So I think about it, but I also try to enjoy the day while I have it. Carpe diem, after all.
PS. I only recently noticed I had written a draft of this post back in August, but for some unknown reason had neglected to publish it online. I rediscovered it after I had posted part 9 and decided to update it. So here it is, somewhat belated and edited.
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