I get off the plane at Washington’s Reagan National Airport on a September evening with a damp diaper in my pants and a message blinking on my cell phone. All I want to do is find the nearest men’s room and deal with the first issue. But a sixth sense tells me to check the message immediately.
When I return the call, I am stunned to hear that my two interviews with a U.S. senator, for which I have just flown across most of the country with an MSNBC colleague in tow, have been summarily canceled. The senator’s staffers have decided they don't like a previous story I wrote that involved the senator.
Trying to not think about how I will explain to my boss a 3,000-mile trip come to naught, I plead with the press secretary. I do everything but beg. Just leave the door open until you meet us. Please. Pretty please. No dice. She hangs up.
It is the beginning of a long, dark autumn. On the surface, most things appear fine. Even great. After all, it has been a few months since my cancerous prostate was efficiently removed by a robot under the direction of some of Seattle's finest surgeons. While I am still struggling with side effects of the surgery, such as the need for that diaper, there has been progress. I am physically as active as I care to be and my post-op PSA (prostate specific antigen) level is zero. The news generally doesn’t get much better at this stage for a guy who has been through what I have. I should be pinching myself.
But over the next several months, I feel like I am running in quicksand. I am indecisive over the smallest things. I have nagging visions of spectacular failures at work and in life. I bore people around me almost daily with these insecurities. My main source of comfort is adding up how much money I could raise if I sold all my belongings and reassuring myself that it would be enough to eke out my days in a small trailer in some remote place.
There's no accounting for how cancer changes us. Some of us work less, play more, try to make up for lost time, "live like you were dying," as the country hit says. Others work more, get our ducks in a row, seek distraction from the obvious consequences of the disease. Some of us pull friends and family closer; some push them away.
Dripping with doubts
Starting with that phone call in Washington, I underwent a bizarre but nearly complete loss of confidence in my ability to do the things I have done with ease for decades. Sometimes it washed over me as a general sense of dread, an inexplicable feeling that I wouldn't be able to finish what I had started, even if it was just a pile of laundry that needed folding. Other times, it surfaced in very conscious feelings of inadequacy, like the sudden dark spot on my jeans while reporting election results in a small crowded room in Mississippi.
At first, it puzzled me because I often saw no connection between cancer and this newfound shakiness. On a daily basis, except when I needed to find a bathroom in a hurry, I rarely thought about my medical situation.
But my girlfriend saw the link. “You’ve been through a lot,” she said. “I’m not surprised.” Even after I accepted her theory, little changed. Intellectually, like some folks who want to quit smoking or drinking, I could now see the problem clearly, but that did little to help me overcome it. I stumbled along, went through the motions, waited for the fog to lift.
And, suddenly, it did, although not quite as quickly as it had come. Interestingly, when it was gone, so were the diapers.
On a pre-Thanksgiving vacation to the California desert, things began turning around. Sixteen miles beyond the pavement in Death Valley, in one of my favorite places in the world, I drove a mesquite branch deep into a tire on my truck. For some reason, the sickening hiss of escaping air and the knowledge that I had not checked the spare in years didn’t panic me.
We pitched the tent in the dark, cooked up a big pot of pasta and watched jet fighters run maneuvers amid the crisp stars so high above us that we could not hear their engines. For two days, we hiked the surrounding canyons, took dozens of photographs and lay in the sun. While I knew that we might end up hiking for help or limping into Stovepipe Wells on a rim and a prayer, I also knew there would be no disaster. Indeed, the spare had enough air to get us to a tire store in Vegas.
Confidence to spare
A few days later, in a motel in Idaho on the way back home, I drifted off to sleep without putting in my nightly “adult undergarment.” When I awoke the next morning without having sprung a leak in the night, I was inclined to treat it as random luck and install a new pad. For some reason, I didn’t. I haven’t used one since. Within a few days of quitting them, it was like the whole incontinence issue had never happened. While my bladder capacity isn’t what it was pre-surgery, I have no other issues. I don’t leak a drop, even during strenuous activity.
As predictably Freudian as this sounds, that bit of physical security brought back emotional stability in spades. At home and work, things are clicking a lot more like the old days. Stories are coming together much more efficiently. I’m choosing paint and bathroom fixtures for the house I’m remodeling with the certitude of Martha Stewart. There’s still way too much to do and too little time to do it, but no sense of impending doom about it. Even though it has been just six months now since my prostate surgery, and two “undetectable” PSA tests now, it seems like a distant memory. I still don’t think much about having cancer or worry that it will come storming back.
At times, when I hear in e-mail or at speaking engagements from men who have not had it so good, I have twinges of guilt. But none of us really knows what’s around the next bend, be it a car wreck or a cancer recurrence, and an almost universal outcome of this disease is a more mindful approach to the time we do have left. I put one foot in front of the other every day fully conscious of each step that I choose to take and knowing that changing any of them is only up to me.
One remaining source of loss and frustration involves, as I always feared it would, sex. While Viagra works for me, and there are even some unassisted stirrings, I think I was overly optimistic about the benefits. The drugmakers’ soft-focus "erectile dysfunction" commercials aside, no pill has so far been able to induce the nuances of sexual arousal as nature intended. But given what happened with the pee problem, I am trying not to dwell on this; indeed, my doctor says that I am already ahead of schedule here and I have an entire year left to expect improvement.
So I’m two for three as I head toward the one-year anniversary of my diagnosis on April 28. No cancer, no diapers, but no natural boners.
I think, for now, that is a pretty good order of business.