My name is Mike and I pee my pants.
There you have it, the single worst thing that has happened to me since I was diagnosed with prostate cancer in April and had surgery one month ago. Fears of dying, concerns about my sex life and pain from the operation are all taking a back seat right now to the damp pad that is front and center in my underwear and my thoughts.
I don’t mean to be melodramatic, but I was much more prepared to polish up my last will and testament than I was for this. Really. After deciding to have surgery, I actually thought about the distribution of my assets in the event of my untimely death but I didn't give one whit of regard as to which brand of adult diapers might be best for me.
It’s not that I wasn’t warned.
The prostate gland surrounds the tube that tells urine when to stop and when to flow, so removing it (or destroying it with radiation) can temporarily — and in some cases, permanently — leave a crack in the floodgates.
My urologist told me that most prostate cancer patients have some trouble controlling their bladders for up to a year after surgery. Many men have to use three or more pads a day for a lot of that time. They’re told to do kegel exercises to help strengthen the pee-restraining muscles before and after surgery.
Denial, which has always served me well, made no exceptions here. I listened to my doctor, but I didn’t really hear all that stuff about pads and kegels and a year. What I heard was that for more than 95 percent of prostate surgery patients, urinary control issues work out just fine. Let’s get on to the important stuff, I thought, which to me was the much higher possibility of a lasting issue with impotence.
The problem wasn’t immediately obvious. When my catheter was removed, there was no gusher. The nurse gave me a pad and helped me snug it into place before I got off the exam table. “That’s a Depends pad for men,” she said in the tone of someone who hands out cheese and cracker samples at Costco.
Drip. Dribble. Hmmm.
So far so good. For the rest of that day and evening, things seemed to go well. There was an occasional drip, but the pad stayed fairly dry. I only changed it hours later because it seemed like the hygienic thing to do before bed.
That night, I was roused several times by the urge to take a leak, but very little actually came out. In the morning, there was no evidence at all that the pad’s powers of absorption had been called upon while I slept. Smugly, I plotted my first long walk without the catheter and contemplated leaving the pad at home. But as I bent over to tie my shoes, I felt a tiny dribble and thought better.
Off I went on one of the 4-mile routes I had laid out through my suburban neighborhood while still wearing the catheter. I made it 100 yards before the first drip. Hmmmm. I crested a slight hill and felt another. Then a little trickle. And another drip. I tried to ignore them. I focused on the green tea soy latte that awaited me at the strip mall.
Halfway there, I couldn’t ignore the situation any more. I was feeling downright soggy. And not just in my pants.
Suddenly, I had a lump in my throat and I was fighting back tears. I wanted to turn around and run home, disown this failing body, take back my decision to have surgery instead of radiation therapy.
In a flash, I thought of what a giant change this would make in my life. I’d have to carry “supplies” everywhere, be very careful of how many fluids I drank, wear loose clothing all the time, take multiple showers every day. Then I thought of all the things I would no longer be able to do. I wondered about the logistics of upcoming mountaineering trips in which one not only has to carry in a dozen protective undergarments, but also carry them out once they’re nice and heavy — and smelly — with piss.
The situation was bewildering because I was getting no signals from my bladder that I had to go. And there was no pattern. A few steps and a drip. Then nothing for a few hundred yards. Then a big dribble.
Flashback to the flagpole
I remembered an accident I had in the first grade. I wet my pants during a test. Instead of being allowed to call my mother and make a graceful exit, I was scolded and made to change into a pair of light blue corduroys in the principal’s office. Then my own jeans were hung, literally, on the flagpole to dry out while my 6-year-old ego was hung before all of Hacienda Elementary School. Two years later, when our family moved, my first thought was that kids at the new school would not know me first and foremost as a pants-wetter.
Somehow, my vivid recollection of this event almost 44 years later snapped me out of my self-pitying reverie and kept me moving toward the strip mall. I realized that walking a few miles for a latte was one of the lesser things I hoped to accomplish in the rest of my life. And I realized that I truly am the only person I have to worry about in this little equation.
Since that first walk three weeks ago, things have improved. It’s hard to tell, but there seems to be more of a warning sensation, more control. It makes sense. The catheter kept the plumbing wide open for 12 days so it will take some time for that alone to get back to normal. I’m choosing to believe that I’ll be in the vast majority of guys who grapple for a time with this, but not forever.
In the meantime, my kegel exercises keep getting easier to do and I keep adding to the routine. And I’m trying not to use the I-word. Incontinence. That may be my old friend denial, but it sounds too damn medical and permanent to me.
I hope that next time I write about what’s going on with my body the news is better on this front. I can tell you that things are quite swell on a related matter, but we’ll save that for later.
MSNBC.com writer Mike Stuckey was diagnosed with prostate cancer in April. He is chronicling his battle in "Low Blow," a series appearing every other Wednesday. In the next installment, he distracts himself with a long list of dietary do's and don'ts.