The Cancer Diaries, Part 30


The web of our life is of a mingled yarn, good and ill together…
(Shakespeare: All’s Well That Ends Well, Act IV, Sc II.)

Elumbated.* It’s an archaic word meaning “weakened in the loins” according to the OED. It apparently derives from the Latin elumbis “having a dislocated hip (from e out + lumbus loin).” I thought that the word itself might be well resurrected to describe someone who had had a radical prostatectomy. Like me:

If the cancer is tangled with the nerves, it may not be possible to maintain the nerve function or structure. Sometimes nerves must be cut in order to remove the cancerous tissue. If both sides of the nerves are cut or removed, the man will be unable to have an erection. This won’t improve over time (although there are interventions that may restore erectile function).

Apparently, elumbated was used in a jocular manner, back in its heyday (today we might use less erudite terms). Jocularity is quite fitting for my condition: you need to keep your sense of humour alive when you undergo such a procedure because the results could too easily lead to anxiety and depression.

Never during my saga of cancer and treatment did anyone in the medical profession talk to me about counselling or offer advice on where to get some, should I need it. Maybe I simply didn’t appear to need it. Maybe I had an aura of strength and resilience, but there have been times when everything weighed on me. I can’t fault the medical care I’ve received, but the psychological side has been, well, lacking. It’s probably good I’m a cranky, independent SOB at heart, and not prone to fits of melancholy. Besides, I have Susan to poke me in the ribs should I start to feel maudlin or sorry for myself.

Another lost word that fits the bill is gallywow, defined as “A man destitute of the power of begetting children.” Found that one in Jeffrey Kacirk’s endlessly entertaining book, The Word Museum (Touchstone, 2000; I greatly enjoy reading such books).

So here I am, an elumbated gallywow, 21 months since my elevated PSA test results were first reported to me, 16 months from my surgery, almost a year from the start of my radiation treatment — another anniversary of sorts — and a week past my most recent PSA test. This week I met with the urologist for my semi-annual consultation and learned that, based on my bloodwork results, everything appears good: my PSA remains very low and my testosterone is returning to normal.

I was very happy to hear that. In the weeks leading up to the visit I was anxious: I imagined what he might say, and how I might react had his news been more negative. Would I require more treatment? Chemotherapy and more radiation? And would I even submit to it? What a relief to hear good news.

The urologist asked me if I could have an erection. I laughed. The last time I had one was before the surgery that removed all the nerves required to hoist the penis to attention. Erections these days fall into the “wishful thinking” category, along with winning the Super Seven lottery and getting the Pulitzer Prize for my blog posts.

He discussed dwindling options, should I wish to have something vaguely akin to a normal sex life for an old guy, ruling out Viagra and Cialis as ineffective for my condition. The remaining option (calling it an “intervention” makes it seem like the military is involved) is to insert a needle into my penis before we want to have sex, injecting a cocktail of fluids that would hoist me aloft for 30-45 minutes.

I replied that the idea of sticking a needle into my penis was not the sort of titillation I imagined would encourage sexual excitement. To price a prick, as it were.

Aside from the utter lack of spontaneity involved, the injection is generally done by the partner (who has to peer closely in order to find the right location) and seeing her approach, needle in hand ready to jab Mr. Happy, was a bit too Rocky Horror Picture Show-ish to be stimulating. And what if Susan was annoyed with me? Would her annoyance manifest itself in that jab? I shuddered.

Not to mention the possibility that my partner would chuckle during the process like some sort of mad scientist and make remarks as it arose from its slumber.

The fluid must be kept in the fridge, and I imagine that injecting a cold substance would also detract from the experience. Besides, I wasn’t too keen on having track marks on my penis, like some sort of twisted William-Burroughs-ish junkie (I imagine writing a takeoff song for my ukulele based on the Velvet Underground’s Heroin…). Altogether too clinical and open to wisecracks, methinks. I think my only real option is to philosophize my condition and accept it. I must re-read Cicero’s De Senectute

Despite the past almost two rough years, I have been trying to stay positive and “drink life to the lees” as Tennyson had his aged king say in his famous poem, Ulysses (1833). But I also hearken back to Horace’s Ode Eheu Fugaces (Odes II.14), in which he wrote:

Alas, alas, my friend Posthumus,
The fleeing years slip quickly by.
No force or virtue can delay them—
We must grow wrinkled, age, and die…
(trans. by Paul Shlichta).**

But you needn’t read poetry to realize your mortality: cancer is a powerful force for concentrating the mind and focusing thoughts on your short life. Not to mention injecting a certain “what the fuck” attitude in your activities that would otherwise engender caution or common sense. But I digress.

Sleep is still a problem; getting enough of it, that is. Although the hot flashes have backed off pretty much (the last volcanic one erupted in the summer and since have only been penumbras of their former brightness), I still need to get up three-four or more times a night to pee. Since it takes me a while to do so (that stricture in my urethra reduces the flow), I wake up while I do so, and often struggle to get back to sleep. I seldom get more than a few hours of sleep at a time. Five hours of straight sleep seems like something from my distant past. As the king said in Shakespeare’s play, Henry IV (part II, Act III, Sc 1):

O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature’s soft nurse, how have I frightened thee,
That thou no more will weigh my eyelids down,
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

I suppose being retired has made everything somewhat more bearable because I haven’t had to miss work for long stretches and explain my condition several times over to coworkers or customers. And, of course, I can nap in the afternoon, assuming there isn’t something to do around the house (and the neighbour isn’t running his bloody leaf blower…). Napping doesn’t cure it, merely alleviates some immediate symptoms.

While my experience with cancer is never far from my thoughts, I am relieved to learn that, for now, I am doing well. And “for now” is how I have to take things, jumping from one six-month-visit to the next, running the gamut of emotions from nervous fear to naive optimism about what the newest bloodwork results will show. But last night we raised a glass of wine to the most recent news.


* I came across it in Ammon Shea’s delightful book, Reading the OED: One Man, One Year, 21,730 Pages (Perigee, 2009). I envy Shea for both having the time and the books to read. I have long wanted to own a copy of the complete, printed OED, with all the supplements. Maybe in my next life (read my post about Shea and dictionaries here).

** Horace is full of wonderful epithets and quotable lines, including:

quit sit futurum cras fuge quaerere
never ask what tomorrow brings (I.16)

dona praesentis cape laetus hora
accept happily the gifts of the present moment (III.8)

pulvis et umbra sumus
we are dust and shadow (IV.7)

And more. All these are from Long Live Latin: The Pleasures of a Useless Language, by Nicola Gardini (Farrar Strauss & Giroux, 2016). I recently finished reading his book.

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