Thinking About Cancer: Other People’s Stories

Prostate cancer cells. (Image by Dr. Gopal Murti/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.)

Prostate cancer cells. (Image by Dr. Gopal Murti/Visuals Unlimited, Inc.)

I recently posted about my cancer diagnosis. I am scheduled to have a radical prostatectomy next month, that being one of the treatment options available for prostate cancer. Deciding to have the surgery made me aware of things to which I had given little attention before.

As I noted in my earlier post, I became much more attuned to people’s stories about cancer. I know a few people currently undergoing treatment for cancer, and have learned recently that there are more people in my circle of acquaintance than I realized who have stories about surviving cancer. I also seem to hear more often than I used to about people who lost their lives to cancer and are no longer here to tell their stories. It’s not as if I had always dismissed such stories; I’m petty good at listening to the troubles of others and having compassion for them. What’s different is that now these stories speak to me personally. Before, I empathized and sympathized. Now I identify.

Some of the stories I hear are of fast-moving cancers that splash through the body as quickly as a spill, soaking into every crack and crevice. One woman went in for a chronic cough and fatigue; her diagnosis was advanced lung cancer, and she was dead in two weeks. Another was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and given six months to live, though she only lasted three. These are the cancer horror stories, the nightmares, the blitzkriegs that quickly disorient and displace the person. In comparison, my cancer is more like an unpleasant dream, or, to use a military analogy, trench warfare, in which my body’s defenses will only gradually be displaced and can retreat to several fallback positions before ultimate defeat becomes likely. Like me, most of the people I know who have been diagnosed with cancer don’t have to contend with the horror-story variant.

To die from galloping cancer seems the worst way to go; the person has time to know what’s happening, but  not time to cope. I can’t help but wonder what it’s like to be in that position. What feelings emerge–despair, anger, fear? Does the urgency of getting things in order take precedence? Is there a temptation to try to protect others by holding back information or pretending you’re more at peace than you are?  How difficult or easy is it to turn to God for comfort? I hope I’ll never have to find out the answers to these questions.

Of course I’m especially sensitive to any mention of prostate cancer, the form that I have. It seems that just about everybody knows someone who has or had this cancer. Some with prostate cancer chose to have internal radiation (brachytherapy), some had prostatectomy. Some are still having the cancer monitored via blood tests and biopsies. A cousin delayed surgery for years because he was praying for God’s guidance. He eventually decided God wasn’t going to tell him what to do and went ahead with the prostatectomy. He had a good outcome, unlike a friend who had surgery promptly after being diagnosed only to learn that the disease had already spread to surrounding tissue. He now has to endure the side effects of androgen suppression therapy.

These stories and others make it clear that there is no way of eliminating all potential for future problems. A course of action that works well for one person doesn’t work well at all for someone else. And even if initial treatment response is good, there is always the possibility cancer will return. That possibility becomes a permanent feature in the psyche. I know a woman who had a mastectomy and chemo for best cancer twenty years ago but still gets quite anxious for several weeks before her annual evaluation with her oncologist.  We never know what will happen. Of course, that’s nothing new: I’m not guaranteed the future and any day could be my last.

It may well be that something entirely different from this cancer will take my life in the end. Once a thief has entered through a particular door, though, it’s only human to pay close attention from then on to that door. I may be caught unawares by something, but I probably won’t again be caught unawares again by that intruder. Such is the psychic armor donned by a cancer survivor. I hope that I’ll wear it lightly.

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About bobritzema

I am a fourth-generation American of Dutch ancestry and am trained as a clinical psychologist. In 2012, I retired from Methodist University in North Carolina to return to my parents' home and provide them with assistance. I maintain part-time therapy practices in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and Fayetteville, North Carolina. I currently worship at Square Inch Community Church in Grand Rapids. I can be reached at bobritzema@hotmail.com.
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