Today I Am Reborn
I am a child of summer, born on the 12th of July.
My mother tells me I came into the world on a beautiful day. This little detail – inconsequential on the face of it – has become important to me. It invites me to dance in the sunlight, part of the origin-story I tell myself. I have learnt that words create worlds.
My keenest childhood memories are of summers, infused with a birthday boy’s sensibility – friends bearing party gifts, TK lemonade, musical chairs in the garden, and the arrival of a strawberry flan dotted with candles.
Sometimes, in the glare of the sun, I would wonder if all those candles were actually lit. But yes. They were. The wicks were black, the coloured wax was soft, and an Icarus-heat would attack my chin if I lingered above them for too long. They must be blown out, and without dilly dally.
Imperceptibly, those boyhood days passed, perfect and fleeting in the dappled light of memory.
This morning, I have awoken with the dawn. I am a grown man. It is my birthday. I am newly 54.
But the day arrives with a certain drum-roll of anticipation, marked by something other than strawberry flan. A different party awaits me.
I will report to the hospital in Dublin at 6.15am. Mine is my surgeon’s first procedure of the day. I will undergo a radical prostatectomy to rid myself of my prostate, and rid my body of cancer.
Better men have had worse things befall them. But I am not a member of the ‘it could have been worse’ brigade. I am singularly uninterested in relativism, which strikes me as graded masochism.
Let me soberly describe what is my actual case.
I have early-stage, intermediate cancer, likely (aka hopefully) contained within the prostate capsule.
One in nine Irish men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer in their lifetime. But I am young to be so (perhaps in the first 10 percentile), and it must be acted upon.
We have discovered it early which is a very, very good thing. There is every prospect of a good recovery, though guarantees do not exist in cancer, even if we insist they do in normal life.
I have made a considered choice for surgery, and there may be complications.
Men, if you read up on these they may make you queasy, frightened or freaked. They did me. Until the acceptance that such things are trivial when measured against saving your own life. And such things may never happen, or at least not with the meaning we assume.
The prostate is the province of the male body, sitting close to the bladder and smack bang in the Grand Junction of most everything we hold dear.
The gland’s principal role is in helping those pesky foot-soldier sperm – nourishing them, protecting them – so that one may finally impregnate an egg, and so carry our genes to the next generation.
By this reckoning I have grossly misused my own, which makes me very proud. I have no children, nor have I planned to have children. To know that I cannot now have children takes on a different texture, and is a source of gentle, though surely not all-consuming, sadness. As human beings, we define ourselves by our potential as much as by our lived experience.
Although the prostate is mission-critical for creating new life, it is not required for a man to enjoy excellent, expansive and, indeed, pleasurable living.
As the human body goes, it is a small piece of kit. Reading my histology report (a medical haiku that rewards study, assuming it’s your own), I discover that my prostate is of pretty normal size, at 30mls volume.
That’s one eleventh of a can of Coke.
The extent of my cancer is detailed in percentage form, and I apply a rudimentary calculation to give me the number I am really seeking.
I have 5.4mls of cancer.
In the widening gyre of uncertainty that cancer creates, I hang onto such silly and presumably nonsensical things. I am struggling to internalise what is happening to my body, and I now have its contours.
I turn to Google to search out comparisons in the real world.
Shiseido has a dinky little product called ‘Cream de Cheek ’ on the market. It is a blush, ‘making cheeks plump and glossy’ with just one single coating. It is delivered in a tiny vessel; one that measures 5.4mls.
Perhaps my 54-year-old visage can do with some Cheek. But my 54-year-old body can certainly do without cancer.
I say this with respect. I do not see cancer as alien to me. After all, these cells mutated from my own DNA. They are part of me. And not all parts of me are good.
I sometimes have negative thoughts or negative impulses which do not serve me. In such cases, I try to take remedial action. I have cancer which does not serve me. It needs to go. I’m taking action.
Diagnosis, long dreaded and much maligned, is the beginning of healing. It is way worse to have bad stuff going on in your body and to know nothing of it. We encourage our children to seek out truth and to not make assumptions. Yet, in our own bodies, we can fall prey to a purposeful lack of curiosity. In a bid to allay our fears, we court danger.
In the moment of diagnosis I became powerful.
My own path to discovering cancer had a lengthy fuse. And it began with a gift.
Seven years ago, I completed a marketing project in the domain of healthcare. My client kindly gave me a gift of a day-long health check as a thank you. Through this experience, I became aware of my bloods, and notably the PSA – a blood marker for the presence of prostate cancer, as well as a plethora of benign issues.
My PSA was mildly elevated for my age, so I waited for 3 months. A second test revealed a decline in the number. I stood down my concern, but made a personal note to keep an eye on that PSA number and all of my bloods.
This was a good decision.
Over the years, tracking revealed nothing of much note, until February 2019 when my PSA jumped. This triggered my introduction to an ever-expanding dramatis personae of urologists, secretaries, radiographers, radiation oncologists, nurses, surgeons, administrators, insurers…
Medicine is immersive theatre with a centrifugal force all of its own. One is drawn in to play a cameo role, and then hopefully, all going well, one is spat right out again.
There is dispute in medical circles regarding the efficacy of the PSA which has many false positives and can lead to over-diagnosis, over-treatment and unwarranted stress. Obviously, this was not the case for me. Each of us must figure out what’s best for ourselves.
My experience tells me this: as we age, we can at least know our bloods, and know how they evolve over time. Just once a year. No drama. No obsession. Just smart.
I see that gift of a medical check-up as the gift that saved my life. I could not have known this at the time. It was only fully unwrapped seven years later.
It is hard to get your head around a cancer diagnosis. The cognitive load is immense, with each sentence uttered triggering multiple implications spontaneously. Those first ten days were so deeply tiring. I felt I was firing on twelve cylinders, not four. (My resting rate is a semi-lazy two).
The experience of shock reminds me of a signal visual of 9/11, after the planes had struck. The cameras looked up, to see millions of tiny bits of office paper flickering in the listless air, eventually to reach the ground.
Shock is the process of bringing order to such impossible chaos. Grabbing each scrap, one at a time. Filing it. Only to realise that they keep on coming. The paper seems never to end. All the time, the brain and spirit adjust. And when you’re ready, the shock dissipates.
For me, that moment came when I called a dear friend in France. She knows me well, and we got through the empathy and caring chat pretty fast. Then she led me straight to the practical. How would I organise myself? How might I find peace? How should I think about the diagnosis, so that I respect it, do what I need to do and fast, but not be consumed by its drama?
Together we talked it through, and created a plan to which I have studiously adhered. When my conversation ended with Nathalie, I felt like the fever in my brain had lifted.
Cometh the hour, cometh the woman.
People need people. Both Barbara Streisand and I know this to be true. I have been carried by the love, honesty, expertise and generosity of my family and those closest to me.
It is not that I feel overwhelmed. I do not. Nor that I am ‘devastated’ (as a leading international cancer website assures me I must be). I am not.
But cancer needs a willing ear; it is the act of others listening which allows me to address myself. Cancer needs a tender shoulder; it is through tears and silence that emotions are honoured. Cancer needs caring wisdom; it is through others’ experiences that insight is garnered.
My tribe has counselled me to take action fast, to place great effort into deciding the right treatment and practitioner for me, and above all to bring a positive frame of mind to the experience. These are early days and I am writing from the frontline. But their sage advice has served me until now. I am so deeply grateful for it all.
The love and kindness that persists between ordinary people is the great untold story of our generation. It is this that shapes an individual’s life the most, albeit without the opioid of drama required to gain media attention. Real life, ever humble, is most often written invisibly, and can only be read between the headlines.
And so today is come. I stand on the precipice between plan and action.
My surgeon offered me this date as the first available in his diary, and it immediately felt right. A rhyming omen.
I trust my choices, I trust him, and I trust his team. There is a plan, and I will play my part within it.
I want to acknowledge that I feel sad, vulnerable, but that simultaneously I am fearless.
It’s no fun to have cancer, but it can also bring with it many profound gifts. I deeply believe all will be well, though I am determined to own any outcome. More than anything, I am bent on ridding my body of those 5.4mls which have out-stayed their welcome.
It is the 12th of July. Today I am reborn. It is a happy birthday.
To the reader: please share this personal story with men you love, and with those who love men
© Brian McIntyre 2019 www.orchard.ie/blog