Beyond Cancer, To Dancing

27th August 2019

My DNA malfunction has been addressed. Through the intervention of medical experts, six robotic incisions, and three hours of surgery, my prostate has been removed and with it a 2.2 centimetres tumour. Pathology, some seven days after the operation, determined that the cancer did not breach the prostate capsule. Being thus contained, there is no further treatment required, and none anticipated. 

Abruptly, I am well. 

Which is not to say I will live forever. That would be unreasonable. The contract of Life has claws, and death is chief among them. But whatever my end, I have substantially reduced my chances of it being imminent by taking the action I have. I am very happily one gland down. 

It is twelve weeks since diagnosis and six since surgery. This double axel of psycho-medical drama has made the summer of 2019 like no other; one lived with profound, exhausting intensity. The last time I felt so alive was age eleven, when my friend Liam and I awoke at 5am on a mission to spot rabbits in O’Gorman’s field.

Intensity, it transpires, is a fine instructor. I feel clearer, stronger, more wholly myself through the experience. Exactly why this should be is something I’m reflecting upon. Whether my perspective will change with time is almost for certain, though fully unknown. So here it is – what I have learnt from cancer. One witness’ account, representing just one man, and just for now. 

(1) “Cancer” is dead. We need to rethink ‘The Big C’ narrative still pervasive in our culture. The fear and dread Cancer creates is unhelpful and often unwarranted. Note how the English language expresses cancer: someone has cancer. Linguistically, cancer insinuates itself into the fabric of one’s body. And because we have cancer, we risk becoming cancer. The French language handles the disease more deftly. En français, the expression is ‘j’ai un cancer’. Literally, ‘I have a cancer’. Note the remove. It is a semantic distance I find more insightful and true. Many, many cancers are now treatable, with amazing outcomes. Just as the narrative of HIV has changed in a half-generation, we must revisit our automatic response to a cancer diagnosis. Welcome to ‘cancer 2.0’. Small ‘c’. It’s a disease to be respected; and with diligence, expertise and luck, it can be managed and, very often, sorted.

(2) Knowing your own body is your duty. We live two lives. Until our late thirties we get to revel in health and rarely see the bill. Health is the hidden gift of youth. Come age forty, and the mood music changes. From here onwards, our job is to proactively maintain good health by tracking it. There are many ways to achieve this. Chief amongst them is simply to know your own bloods. Check them once a year, and every year. Pay money to make sure you get the right tests and understand your results. Knowing my bloods saved my life. Someone you love, right now as you read this, may benefit from knowing theirs. 

(3) Lay claim to people’s positive energy. On the evening before surgery I walked the beach with a dear friend, and between all of our distracting chat, we made a packing list for hospital. Along with slippers, pyjamas and other alien paraphernalia, Rosita added a last article: my good luck cards and get well cards. So I packed them too. The beautiful notes I received from my tribe came with me to hospital. Etched in them, and the myriad texts and mails I received, I discovered the power in manifesting the love and support in my life; knowing it by showing it. Why hide the light, if we must walk a lonely road at dusk? As another dear friend wrote, ‘though this is your own journey, you are not alone’. 

(4) Own your strength. In extremis, we reveal something new of ourselves to ourselves. Vulnerability manifests strength more readily than it exposes weakness. For example, I discovered that I do not go to jelly in a crisis. On the whole, I am sanguine in the face of absolute shit. Good for me! I did not know that about myself. On a good day I may have suspected I was strong. Knowing it is different. When we demonstrate our strength to ourselves, no one else’s contrary opinion truly matters.

(5) Work with those you love. I love my work. But there is now one wrinkle in this broad assertion: I’m done working with people who stress me out. I’ve been landed in a few toxic working relationships with clients over the years, and endured them because I assumed I had no choice. Perhaps I didn’t back then. But I sure do now. There are so many great people to work with. Toxicity is a result of poor chemistry, not foul folk. To cease such working relationships serves everyone. To love my work, it is now plain to me that I have to love the people (not the opportunity, not the kudos, not the damned invoice). This level of respect for my client brings out the best work in me, and it’s oh so good for my health.

(6) Be less of a pain-in-the-ass. I read stories of patients emerging from cancer with a new ball-breaking attitude to people and situations. My instincts are the reverse. I’m a man who cares very much for his friendships, but sometimes I allow my sensitivity to become my master. A little hurt here, a perceived slight there, and I become self-righteous. I have been prepared to wallow in the deep end, sure that I am right. This is so not ideal! It is lost energy, and distances me from those I love. In practising a less tight version of who I am, I aim to become less of a pain in the ass to my friends. Cancer offers what psychologists call a ‘tabula rasa’ – the opportunity to wipe the slate clean. It taught me instantly of the friendships I truly cared for, irrespective of quibbles and spats. In doing so, it also affirmed those friendships from which I have respectfully moved on. And it is all good, and I feel so much healed for it all. 

(7) Sometimes, you must be captain. A caring urology nurse, Joyce, in preparation for hospital and the dozens of professionals I would meet there, told me that they were united as a team to rid me of cancer. She looked me in the eye to make sure I got the next bit: “You are our captain”. It was an electric moment of understanding, inviting me to contribute to my own positive outcome. I am not a passive observer of life, so why would I become a passive observer of my own health? I have rarely been so prepared as I was at 6.15am on July 12th 2019, when I checked in for surgery. My contribution made a difference to my outcome. Consequently, I know that there can never be a crisis in which I am powerless. 

(8) Sharing difficulty is an act of leadership. It is no fun to traffic in one’s own personal laundry. The pleasure zones of my brain would rather be writing here of some great success, not my bout of cancer and the intimate details of my own body which this entails. Zuckerberg and his ilk have bastardised what it means to share, conflating it with bragging. We are rarely permitted vulnerability, nuance or incomplete endings. This is unhealthy. When we speak up for what is difficult in our lives, we give voice to others too. Particularly in the area of prostate cancer, a pall of silence has meant that many men will face into it with too much fear and too little understanding. I have turned normal coffees with friends into health salons; I have been prepared to talk to some about the quality of my erections and the efficacy of my bladder; I had tears in my eyes as I told my sister of the enormous distress I felt after a prostate biopsy, when my ejaculate essentially made me feel like I was cumming blood. None of this is easy. Some illnesses are so personal as to be humiliating, and ultimately shaming. The best way to eradicate shame is to speak through it. Each time one of us does this, we are party to an act of insurgent leadership.  

(9) Find your spirit if you want a spirit. Early on, when I was getting an MRI, I was asked by a hospital registration official if I had a religion. My response was a terse ‘No’, which instantly made me sad. I am a cultural Christian, steeped in Christian teaching since childhood. I know vast tracts of Scripture by heart because I sang it all. Its core message remains beautiful to me. And yet, in my hour of personal need, I was afloat without spiritual anchor. I realise that I have allowed the Catholic Industrial Complex to rob me of something I cared for. This will not do. Finding an authentic spiritual path is now my new adventure. I have many ideas. 

So there it is. My eight weeks of recuperation are almost up, and I will soon waltz back into the thick of life. I feel so deeply grateful for the gift of health, and for the well of love and opportunity that surrounds me in my life. There will be troubles and obstacles ahead. But what of it. I’ll deal with those, one by one. Cancer has affirmed to me that living is a privilege, and that life itself is a transcendent melody composed of beauty, shade and joy. Who am I not to dance?


To the reader: please share this personal story with men you love, and with those who love men. This essay is the second in a series of two. The first, focusing on diagnosis, can be found here

© Brian McIntyre 2019 

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