(from my diary)
I was to leave for my regular summer holiday in my home town of Gimli in two days so I nearly cancelled my physical. I hadn’t had a physical in five years and my doctor was insisting on it. Later, I thought, I can have it later, but he’d been very insistent so I quit packing for the trip and went to his office.
He looked here and there, prodded me, asked questions, pronounced me healthy. I was dressed and at the door when he said, “I forgot the prostate test. Take you pants down, this will only take a minute.”
I did as he said and bent over the table. He put on a rubber glove. He put a finger in my bum. I felt him poking around, then stop and I immediately knew something was wrong.
“I don’t think you should leave Victoria,” he said. “I’m going to make an appointment with Dr. Piercy, the oncologist.”
With that my world was turned upside down. My father already had prostate cancer. It was slow growing and he hadn’t had anything done about it except to get checked once in a while. Some prostate cancers are like that, slow growing, others are aggressive and grow rapidly.
When I got to see the oncologist, he poked around as well, then announced that he needed to do a biopsy.
“You won’t need an anaesthetic. It doesn’t hurt,” he said. Wrong. You lie there while they punch little samples out of your prostate. It hurts like hell. Afterwards, I peed blood.
It was pretty tense waiting for the results but when they came they were negative. I had a party. Except that the oncologist wasn’t convinced I didn’t have prostate cancer. My PSA was rising steadily. He set up another biopsy in three months. That one came back negative as well.
“I don’t believe it,” he said. “You’ve got prostate cancer. We just haven’t found it. The next time we’ll use an anaesthetic and I’ll go all around your prostate. When I’m finished your prostate will look like a colander.”
In the meantime I was sent to the cancer clinic in Vancouver. The specialist there said to watch and wait. I wasn’t impressed. Watch and wait for what, until it was too late?
The third biopsy found the cancer. It was at the front. Normally, they just test the back. The oncologist drew a diagram for me. The cancer was the shape of a peanut.
“What do you want to do?” he said. “You can choose to do nothing. You can choose surgery. You can go the hormone and radiation route. I’ll arrange for you to see Dr. Blood. He’s the chemical man.”
My friend Valerie came with me. Dr. Blood showed us a chart and explained that at this stage either procedure had a fifty fifty chance of being successful. Valrie asked, “If this were you and not Bill, what would you choose?” He said he’d have the operation.
We walked out of his office and I phoned to say I wanted to go ahead with the operation.
I had to have a bone scan first. If the cancer cells had spread beyond the prostate, there was no point in having the operation. There’s nothing to a bone scan. They shoot you up with a radioactive dye, you lie on a table and a machine above you moves slowly from toes to head.
“You have a spot on your spine,” the oncologist said. “It’s unlikely that it’s cancer that has spread but we need to know for sure. Were you ever in a car accident?”
I wasn’t in a car accident so we went to the hospital. I had the Xray that would determine whether it was cancer or an old injury. It was early morning. I was beside myself with anxiety. Valerie insisted we go for breakfast, ordered for me. I ate mechanically. We had an hour to wait for the results. When we got them, the mark on my spine was an old injury. I phoned the oncologist and said book surgery as soon as possible.”
It is hard for someone who hasn’t had cancer to understand the trauma of the tests, of the waiting for results, of the uncertainty, of the fear. You started to slide down a slippery slope my GP said the moment I found that hard spot on your prostate. There’s no going back.
To ease the transition, the hospital puts on an information evening once a month for men diagnosed with prostate cancer. There the audience gets to hear about everything from the history of surgery (at one time one hundred percent of patients died from having surgery) to the meaning of test results. The patients are grouped together on the basis of what type of treatment they are having or are going to have. This is where I learned that when I came out of surgery to look at the clock. If very little time had elapsed, then it meant they’d cut me open but had found the cancer had spread and so sewed me back up without doing anything. I heard that the younger you are, the more aggressive your cancer is likely to be. Knowing that we all felt terrible for the young man of thirty-eight who was assigned to our group. I heard about the possible results of my operation: the operation might work, it might not. The results could be that I would be incontinent and have to wear a diaper all my life. The odds were high that I would be impotent. I could end up paralyzed from the waist down.
A lot of men worry about being impotent, especially if they’ve got younger wives. The good news is that Viagra and some of the other pills work sometimes. There’s a drug called Muse. Surgeons are being careful about not cutting nerves if they can avoid it. Some surgeons are using a nerve from the ankle to restore sexual function. There’s a lot of adjustment for couples. The hospital puts on evenings for couples on how to have sex after your male partner has had prostate surgery.
The morning of surgery, my daughter stood on one side of my gurney and Valerie stood on the other. They each held one of my hands. Each told me she loved me before I was wheeled away. A friend of mine who is an anaesthetist came in especially to administer my anaesthetic.
When I woke, I checked the clock. A couple of hours had passed.
You live with a catheter and a plastic bag that collects your urine and blood. You empty the day bag which is small and put on the large night bag before you go to sleep. You wash each bag out with vinegar and hang it up to dry. At first it is difficult but in a few days the procedure becomes routine.
I could have stayed home but I went to work with a bag attached to my ankle. I think I was trying to prove that I was still alive. Then the catheter came out, everything worked, and life returned to normal.
At first, I went for regular PSA tests every month. At the beginning, there was one alarm with the score jumping. A second test showed the PSA stable. Those were hard days.Now, I go for a PSA test once a year.
Carol Shields told me that once you have cancer, you develop a cancer eye. It’s like a tiny TV camera way back in your head somewhere, always watching.
I’m lucky. I’ve made it to seventy-two. I’m still a bit tense when I go for a PSA test and while I wait for the results. Eleven years is a long time but as the oncologist said to me, cancer is very unpredictable.You never know what to expect.