In the annals of American history, December 7th is a date that will live in infamy. It’s also the date that I found out I had prostate cancer. On that fateful Pearl Harbor Day from last year, I discovered something else about myself. I’M A WUSS. I don’t take bad news well.
Everyone has a bit of a hypochondriac in them. You always kind of wonder how you’ll react when receiving the dreaded CANCER diagnosis. Will you stand firm in your faith, calling on years of spiritual steadfastness to fight the good fight? Or will you cower in fear, dread, and self-pity, lamenting the misfortune of being struck down in your prime?
I’m embarrassed to admit—I didn’t handle the situation well. I tried to put on a brave face on the outside, but inwardly I was scared. I sulked. I worried. I’ll confess that my mind went to some dark places. In other words, I wilted like a weak-willed wallflower—like a wimp…a weakling…a wuss.
The reality is that, other than skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common cancer found in American men. One man in nine will be diagnosed with it in his lifetime. It’s the second leading cause of cancer death in the United States. Statistically, about one man in forty-one will die of the disease. It’s a serious illness, but it’s also highly treatable.
My cancer was discovered early with a routine PSA (prostate-specific antigen) blood test. Even though my levels were still within the normal range, they had gradually risen over the past couple of years. The doctor recommended a biopsy, which led to the eventual surprising diagnosis. Previously, I had no adverse urinary symptoms. I was in great physical shape and had always taken good care of my body. I could still run an eight-minute mile. This couldn’t be happening to me, I thought.
Well, think again. Through my supportive family, praying friends, and Dr. Charles Ray at Commonwealth Urology, I somehow waded through the funk. Rather than undergo radiation or selective seeding, I decided to have my entire prostate removed, knowing full well that those embarrassing incontinence and erectile dysfunction issues could likely follow. Appropriately, I ended up having robotic surgery on Valentine’s Day at Baptist Health Hospital, spent a miserable week with a dangling catheter, and the next six weeks mired in recovery.
Fortunately for me, the incontinence issues have cleared up quickly. I’m peeing like a horse—with no runs or drips. I’ve got a whole bag of unused Depends if anyone needs them. The ED issues are more of a challenge. Let’s just say I’m glad this didn’t happen twenty years earlier. The doctor is confident I’ll regain my edge. I’m a bit more skeptical, although thoroughly amazed that the vacuum penis pump has thus far delivered as promised.
Just when I was nearly back to fighting strength, however, life throws me another haymaker. A nodule on my thyroid was found to be “suspicious” upon biopsy. A new-fangled molecular test indicated probable malignancy. WHAT? Two cancers in six months? YOU CANNOT BE SERIOUS!
You’d think with practice, I would have responded more favorably this time around—with more resilience and fortitude. I’d survived my cancerous prostate. Surely I could do the same with my thyroid.
WRONG! The same doubts and fears and tears of pain came crashing down again—I was a basket case. The wuss in me had returned with a vengeance.
Once again, there was speculation and worry—some pretty dark nights of the soul fearing the worst. Prayer warriors were summoned again, and on July 11th, I went back under the knife at Good Samaritan Hospital under the capable hands of Dr. David Sloan to have the right lobe of my thyroid surgically cut out.
Surgery is never fun, but at least this time, there was no catheter involved—and for the first time in my lifetime, my annual insurance deductible had actually been met. THAT was intensely satisfying, but the ensuing days waiting for the pathology report were interminable. When Dr. Sloan finally gave me the good news the other day—that the tumor was BENIGN—relief washed over me. Actually, it was more like waves of ecstasy. I had bucked the odds. It was the proverbial new lease on life—like the Laettner shot or the Wisconsin loss mercifully wiped from the memory banks forever.
Despite my good fortune, tough challenges still lie ahead. I’ll have to monitor my thyroid levels for the rest of my life—just like I’ll have to continually check my PSA levels for any prostate cancer recurrence. Those relentless cancer cells are always lurking, looking to crash your party when you least expect it. Cancer sucks. Awaiting those test results sucks almost as much.
The real question is this, though. What have I learned from all of this?
Most of all, I’ve learned compassion—compassion for the multitudes of cancer patients and their families. The mental anguish of dealing with these diseases is nearly as devastating as the physical challenges. Those who are suffering covet our encouragement, support, and prayers. You CAN get through this.
The other thing I learned is that life just seems so random. There’s suffering all around us. Good people we care about get sick and die. Disasters happen. On the surface, life just seems so blatantly unfair.
But when I dig deeper, I’ve discovered that life can also be intensely meaningful—designed to be lived to the fullest, and endlessly savored. I’m not sure why it took me this long to discover this basic truth. It seems so simple and straightforward. But if two back-to-back health scares within a six-month period is what it took to get my attention, then I’m eternally grateful that I went through the trials.
Finally—Guys, get your PSA levels checked on an annual basis. Monitor your thyroid periodically. Take care of your bodies. Find good doctors and listen to their advice. Remember that not all fancy schmancy medical tests are a hundred percent accurate. Pray. Love life. Love one another. And above all, keep the faith. Miracles do happen—even to wusses like me.
Dr. John Huang is a retired orthodontist. He currently serves as a columnist for Nolan Group Media and Sports View America. If you enjoy his writing, you can follow him on Twitter @KYHuangs.