I choose a warm summer night for our first date. It's a month after my cancerous prostate was removed, my catheter is gone and my surgical wounds are healing. What the heck, I figure, time to get back in the game.
There’s no need to agonize over what to wear, no need to use extra mouthwash or futz with my hair. Nope, although my plan is absolutely to get lucky by the end of the evening, no other person is involved. That’s right, my date is a little blue pill that I’m counting on to snap an old soldier back to attention, wave the flag proudly and make Mr. Happy happy once again.
I have already been disappointed to learn that while I can get a little something going down below, I’m not going to be having sex any time soon — at least not without some assistance.
The nerves that control my ability to have an erection were not permanently harmed during my operation. But those nerves ordinarily rest against the prostate gland itself. So the trauma of having the little fellow ripped from beneath them has left the nerves unable to direct the party games for now.
My doctor says there’s a 75 percent chance that the nerves will be up to their old tricks, unassisted, within a year. In the meantime, it’s important to sport some wood every now and then to keep the blood flowing and avoid the simply awful-sounding complication of penile atrophy.
So I’ve been given a prescription for Viagra and told to start with half a 100 milligram pill. If the drug doesn’t work, I’m advised, we can go on to penis pumps, injections and all the way to Defcon 1, a penile implant. Oh goodie!
As I shake the football-shaped pill from the bottle and awkwardly cut it in two on my kitchen counter, a wave of weird excitement seizes me, like I’ve been caught somewhere between racing up to my room to try out the new Little Orphan Annie Decoder Ring and sneaking my first beer.
The great male irony
I down the half-tablet with a gulp of water and reflect on a great male irony. In our younger days, we have no control whatsoever over when and where we go boing and often wish we had a switch to just turn the damn thing off. When we get older, the opposite may be true. How many of us prayed all through high school for class not to end so we wouldn’t be forced into the halls with the dreaded pants tent? And now, after we turn 45 or 50, how many of us pray that there’s still some life left in the old tent pole?
Until I began this “research,” I had some big misconceptions about how Viagra and similar drugs work. Hilariously, I actually thought that a man popped the pill and then … schwing! The implications of that made me giggle as I thought of such men getting into car accidents on the way to the massage parlor and playing pranks on each other at the nudist resort. Hey, the commercials even warn about “erections lasting longer than four hours.”
Well guys, no such luck. These drugs don’t contribute to sexual desire or arousal any more than a plate of oysters does. Viagra’s label notes clearly that it “has no effect in the absence of sexual stimulation.”
In the midst of such reflections and label-reading, I suddenly notice that I’m feeling odd. Nothing unpleasant, really, just slightly light-headed, as if I’ve had a cocktail or two. But when I go into the bathroom, I am startled by the intensity of the lights above the mirror. Both phenomena, I read later, are common side effects of Viagra.
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After an hour, when the medication is supposed to be at peak effect, I nervously decide that it’s time for The Test. Well, anything for science and journalism. Soooo, some appropriate measures are taken. Yep, just use your imagination. And you should stop reading right here if you’re going to get all worked up about a 49-year-old cancer patient getting, well, all worked up.
But the bottom line is ... YOWZAH!!!! This stuff works. And we are not talking a tepid Ballpark Frank result. No sir! We are talking a fine result, a wonderful result, a glorious result, a result that meets rigid specifications, a result that you could, in fact, hang laundry on.
Of course, there's a lot more to sex than a willing willie. When your prostate gland is removed, your ability to produce semen goes with it. And while "dry" orgasms are pleasurable, they're definitely different than what nature intended.
How all of this will work out in the long run, I can't say, but the short term has been pretty good.And that, fearless readers, is pretty much all you need to know about that.
It seems an odd time to turn seriously emotional, but I do. I am so relieved and grateful that on top of worrying about whether my cancer is gone and if I’ll be able to stop wetting myself, I won’t have to resort to extraordinary measures to be able to have sex. A little bit of planning around when to take the magic pill seems a very small inconvenience. And with results like this so soon after surgery, there’s every reason to believe I won’t need the medication for long.
At this point in my cancer journey, I have many other reasons to be grateful. I’ve recently been given the result of my first post-op PSA test: effectively zero. While that doesn’t mean I should consider myself “cured” of prostate cancer at this point, it’s an excellent start.
The stressful steps of choosing my treatment, having the surgery and recovering from it have passed with as little upheaval as possible in my personal and work lives. My relationship with my girlfriend, who had many dark moments of her own along the way, is as strong as ever and we have fallen back into more familiar patterns.
The pants-wetting issue seems to be improving. I only need one pad a day unless I am extremely active and then it’s two. I think I might need to make a more concerted effort with the kegel exercises and keep some kind of log if I want to make it to the next level. But my doctor says I am right on track here and the truth is that it just isn’t bothering me like it did a few weeks ago.
As these things go, it has been a good trip. I was very lucky that the cancer was discovered at an early stage, although I will take credit for making the routine medical appointments that led to its discovery.
I will say that one of the best decisions I made along the way — right up there with choosing the right treatment for me, a great doctor and an excellent medical center — was to be as open as I possibly could with my friends and family and share my story with all of you. Fear and anxiety thrive in cold, dark, lonely places and by inviting others along on my journey, I had warmth, light and companionship.
Moving on and up
But it’s time to move on now to climb a few new mountains, remodel a kitchen and try to bridge the gap between “cancer patient” and “cancer survivor.” And it’s time for “Low Blow” to take a break.
Although all of the contents will remain online and we encourage readers to continue using the message board and mailbag, this is the final regular installment. I'll be back with an update — and even better news, I hope — next year.
For now, I will close by saying "thank you" to the thousands of readers who have responded so kindly, compassionately and informatively via e-mail and on the message boards. I have made new friends and begun correspondences that I think will last a lifetime. Please continue to write.
And here are two last words for all you big strong guys, including some I love dearly, who know you should but haven’t yet: Get tested.
MSNBC.com writer Mike Stuckey was diagnosed with prostate cancer in April and has been chronicling his battle in "Low Blow." This is the final regular installment of the series, but Mike will return with an update in a few months.