Prostate cancer was never high on my agenda of things to worry about. Fully aware of my husband’s cancer-free family medical history, and of his healthy lifestyle, it never punctured my awareness. It was a disease of older men, right? Wrong-he was 51 when he got it.
At a routine medical checkup which he had done every 2 years, the doctor, a respiratory physician, ran a full battery of blood tests, along with physical examination etc. Everything came back normal except for the PSA- prostate specific antigen.
-It’s only minimally elevated, said the doctor
- but as far as I’m concerned, they convene vast international conferences to determine the upper and lower limits of normal. You fall outside these norms and in my opinion (even though I’m not a specialist in that area) this result needs to be checked in three months. I’ll write to your GP and ask him to do it.
Now I’m any husband’s nightmare- insisting that he have his own independent medical adviser whom he trusts, that he consults him (or her) and takes advice, or at least, carefully considers it before rejecting it. I diaried the repeat, and asked him to make his appointment for the blood test. Somehow, he kept forgetting, and found that he was far too busy to prioritise it. After a campaign of daily e-mails (cyber-nagging) he made the arrangements. To his immense surprise, his (then) GP made little of the minimal elevation of PSA, and suggested that the odds of cancer were very low. Being quite happy to minimise (rather than repeat) an abnormal result, the GP took quite a bit of persuading to order a repeat PSA but finally did. In a matter of a few months, the PSA had more than doubled. The GP gave my husband the result and referred him to a urologist.
The urologist did a physical examination and found no abnormalities. PSA was repeated and had risen again. Biopsy of the prostate was the next step. This was done and having duly told nobody, we jumped on a flight to Nice for a week’s holiday in the south of France during the vendage. We had a blissful time in the sun, driving through the vineyards of Chateauneuf-du-Pape in complete denial.
On our return from a wonderful break, the urologist’s secretary rang my husband and told him that the results were positive.
-No, said the lady,
-I’m afraid that the sample was positive for cancer…you have cancer of the prostate and the doctor would like to see you tomorrow.
We attended the visit together. The pathologist reported that 3 of the 6 bores from the biopsy had evidence of cancer cells. The cell type was that of an aggressive, fast moving variety of cancer. Quick intervention was advised to prevent further spread of the disease. In my husband’s case, the clinical findings were such that he could choose treatment by radiotherapy or surgery. The choice was his. He was given the names of a radiotherapist and an oncologist whom he consulted during the following few weeks. We also asked everyone we knew who had had any experience of the disease to share their stories. They seemed to be everywhere.
During this period, my Mum died after a long illness. As I stood by her graveside and watched himself at the other side, I wondered how long it would be before I’d be back beside the gaping earth for another funeral……. Surreal does not even begin to describe the feeling.
After careful deliberation he chose to have surgery. The urologist said that most of the cancer was located on one side of the prostate, and that it might be poossible to conserve the nerve on the other side. It was impossible to predict how it would go at surgery. The consent forms were signed, we waved goodbye to intimacy as we had known it during our life together, and off he went to theatre.
Operating on a prostate requires immense dexterity and skill. Absolute accuracy depends on years of experience and stamina too, as these operations can go on for several hours. My husband’s urologist was great. He emerged from theatre four hours later, declared that the operation was routine, with no complications, that he had saved a nerve (which although intact, might or might not recover) and that he could give no opinion on the amount of cancer in the prostate until the pathologist would report, several days later.
The news was good. The margins of the prostate were clear of cancer, as the disease had not reached the capsule of the gland. It was unlikely, therefore, that the cancer could spread, or could have spread, and all that was left to do was recover from the operation and have regular checkups- every few months at first and then once a year.
Just before Christmas my husband came home from hospital. Since it’s a time of year when everyone socializes a lot, the news had spread like wildfire. Within three months, four of his friends had been diagnosed to have prostate cancer. Six years later, another friend was diagnosed – with a more advanced case of prostate cancer.
Now, the only reminder of that terrible time is a scar. Within 18 months, he had made a complete recovery, and never looked back. There are long stretches of time when we actually forget that it happened.
I could write about the five stages of grief we went through, the support of friends and family, the funny incidents. But here we are, years later, counting our blessings on Thanksgiving Day. It is salutory to reflect on what might have happened if as a healthy, lively man, my husband had not had his routine checkup.
The Declaration of Independence says that “all men are created equal and are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness….”. The second and third are irrelevant in the absence of the first.
Mind your health. Inform yourself and consult a trusted professional.
Then Live your Life. Every moment of it.
Sláinte ‘gus Saol !