Understandably over these past many months, family talk has been mostly about the “C-word,” Covid-19. Yet, cancer, that other “C-word,” continues to do its nasty work across Canada. The Canadian Cancer Society estimated that in 2020, about 64 men across our land would receive a diagnosis of prostate cancer every day. I was one of them.
The “good news” was that if I had to choose a cancer, prostate cancer is one of the least scary ones. The survival rate after five years is 95%— odds that are pretty good. I have previously described the statistical incidence of this form of cancer, typical symptoms, my screening tests and treatment strategies. (editor: Insert links to two past columns.)
On hearing this news of my illness some weeks ago, our minister phoned to offer pastoral support, prayer and encouragement. Her first question was understandably “How are you feeling?” I automatically responded with a brief description of my tiredness, pain level etc. But as a former long-serving hospital chaplain, she was also posing a much deeper question. “How are you feeling about the word—‘cancer’?”
I have since pondered that question. Unless I am escaping into total denial of emotions, I think I am handling it, as a friend noted: “very matter-of -factly.” There are two reasons for my emotional reaction—or lack of such. The first is my age. Once a person reaches the plateau of their 80th year and beyond, he or she can expect to encounter one serious illness or another somewhere on the rest of the journey. The urologist’s biopsy findings obviously came as a disappointment, but not as a shock. I hasten to add that a cancer diagnosis in younger years is typically far more devastating. There are still families to raise, careers to finish, mid-life marriages to maintain, future years of retirement to enjoy. I have officiated at too many funerals where cancer has prematurely stolen those life goals away. I am thankful to have already achieved each of them before my own diagnosis.
The second reason, more related to my vocation, is that for forty years as a minister, I have been around a lot of parishioners coping with cancer. I am perhaps too familiar with this enemy of health. Whether visiting those hundreds of patients and their loved ones at home, in hospital or palliative care, I found cancer quickly became familiar. It was then a small jump of acceptance to recognize that cancer was not only a burden carried by those whom I had visited, but now was also mine to bear.
Once I had processed what to tell myself, I then had to determine what to tell my family and close friends. Or more correctly—should I tell them and if so, when?
Being a very self-reliant, independent soul, my initial impulse was to tell no one. My reasoning was clear: why cause loved ones to add my C-word to their list of daily worries and preoccupations when I was not yet receiving treatment nor encountering major symptoms. At that point, I was merely doing what my oncologist termed “watchful surveillance?” On that proverbial other hand, how honest was I being when
I habitually would respond to well-meaning inquiries—How are you?” with an automatic “Fine.” It seemed a bit incomplete and misleading! I decided to seek out an outside-the-family listening ear who would hear my dilemma—without betraying my trust nor offer simplistic advice or pronounce moral judgement. That friend was not far away.
After two deep conversations, I realized that I owed it to family and loved ones to bring them into the picture. I could then enlist their support, both emotional and practical, and avoid the risk and shock of having to spring the C-word on them at some later date, should a health crisis occur through my journey into this unknown. I was no longer withholding information from those who cared. Other folks, newly-diagnosed with cancer, will make their own choices about when and how to share the diagnosis. Hospital chaplains and social workers are well-qualified to help with this decision-making process.
However, I would personally emphasize the importance of regular, age-level screening for prostate cancer and then letting others: family, a friend or health professional, share that journey with you, if it is diagnosed. The Canadian Cancer Society estimates that one in nine men will develop some level of prostate cancer in their lifetime. Make a PSA reading part of your medical checkups as needed.
Two days ago, I began weekly radiation treatments at Grand River Hospital in Kitchener. More about that experience another time. I’m quite ready to set aside writing about the C-word. I would rather tell you about that unforgettable May evening forty years ago, when I made my successful singing debut in front of a full house at Toronto’s historic Massey Hall. Next time!