How I Survived Prostate Cancer

Anybody who has seen “Peanuts,” the world’s best comic strip because its characters act like human beings, will recall the episode when one of the girls asks Lucy why she hates Charlie Brown so much.

“Because,” says Lucy.

“Oh, I see,” says the other girl. “I thought you didn’t have a reason.”

As one who survived prostate cancer incurred back in the 80s, I can say that it was because of a simple habit that I’m alive today. It was because I followed the habit which had been suggested to me by a younger brother. He went to his own urologist and told me that I should arrange an annual checkup from a urologist because (there’s that word again!) it would denote whether I had a problem in my prostate. A test that only takes a couple of minutes, he said, will show whether you have it or not.

My brother, being the direct, no-nonsense no pussy-footing around type, said bluntly: “I know this sounds awful and lots of men don’t go to urologists because of it, but the doctor sticks his finger up your butt to test you for prostate cancer. He can feel if there are any nodules or abnormal hardness there. It takes less than a minute at the most, though it is a little uncomfortable. You’ll get used to it. It only happens once a year.”

Well, he was right. I did get used to the finger probe, which is called a Digital Rectal Exam (DRE) and is, of course, used by urologists worldwide. So every year, when it came time for my visit, I checked into my urologist’s office, made the usual friendly greetings and did what he asked me to do. That was dropping my pants, bending over the examination table, and letting him do his thing. One great advantage of this procedure, and obviously the most important, is when the doctor said after just a moment of rumination: “Nope. There’s nothing there. See you next year.”

Somewhere during my years of visitation, a new detection system came into existence. It was called the Prostate Specific Antigen (PSA) Test and consisted of a simple blood test – a sample of blood taken from your arm – to determine if there’s anything sinister in your prostate. Dr. William Catalona, a former urologist for Barnes Jewish Christian Hospital in St. Louis, developed it. A pioneer and tireless physician involved in prostate cancer surgery and research, Dr. Catalona has since left BJC and is now affiliated with Northwestern University in Chicago, where he continues his work on one of the deadliest of male afflictions.

Well, needless to say, the worst happened to me one day when I made my annual checkup. “It” means that the doctor detected an abnormality and wanted me to return for a more detailed examination. That naturally bothered me because (that word!) I’d been through so many routine checkups over the years, that I never expected anything to happen. That’s human nature.

So I came back for a biopsy, which was held in the doctor’s office. That helped because at least I didn’t feel like I was going to be zapped with a microwave or some other medical instrument. I was somewhat apprehensive of whether the biopsy would hurt, but it didn’t. I lay on my side on an examination table while the biopsy expert did his thing. He told me, I remember, that somewhere along the line I’d hear “a popping sound” as he probed, but that it wouldn’t last long. It didn’t and it didn’t hurt. I can’t recall how long it took, but it wasn’t forever and the aide was a really nice man.

I went home that day, still apprehensive because I didn’t know what the result would be. Those kind of lags in hearing whether your going to get good news or bad news is one of the most irritating and gloomy of all treatments you have to undergo whether in a doctor’s office or in a hospital. For me, it turned out to be bad because (again!) the doctor told me it was prostate cancer and he ordered me admitted to the hospital, which was Barnes at the time.

If you’ve undergone surgery before, you already know the procedure: the admission to surgery, a few professional activities as the nurses or surgical aids prepare you for the operating room, the anesthetic which suddenly puts you to sleep. You wake up hours later in the recovery room, the whole process a miracle of modern medicine.

Then you go home but you’re still equipped with some accouterments that the doctor wants you to keep until you’re well. As an “expert” in prostate cancer surgery, I can attest to anybody that the worst of them is having to wear a catheter tube running from deep inside your penis to a plastic bag that you must carry around with you whenever you make a move from living room, to bathroom, to computer room. When you’re sitting in an easy chair watching the news on TV and somebody walks in, you’re immediately apprehensive that he or she is going to step on that bag. “Watch out for my bag!” you’ll shout, to the usual consternation of your spouse, relative, or friend who have no intention of hurting you.

You wear the catheter apparatus for a week, then return to the doctor’s office to have it removed, and here’s where the funny part comes in – yes, there are funny parts to almost every surgical episode, either with the doctors and nurses, visitors, or just yourself. It happened with me when a nurse came in, told me to take my trousers off and sit on the examination table. That I did. There I was, naked from the waist down and a female nurse ready to take out the catheter. I was a little embarrassed but any kind of follow-up procedure of both sexes after surgery is common in hospitals or doctors offices.

So what happened? I lay back on the table, as I was told, and waited for her to begin removing the catheter, which, of course, is a very long, skinny, flexible tube from my bladder through my penis and into a plastic bag. I had the idea that I’d be patient with whatever the nurse did, don’t say anything and do what I was told to do.

Then, as I lay there, to my great surprise, and I mean surprise!, the nurse simply walked over to where I was (I couldn’t see her because my eyes were fixed on the ceiling) and jerked the catheter tubing out of my penis. Yes, jerked is the word. She never said a word, never gave me any instructions, just jerk and poof, and the catheter was gone, like magic. And painless too, which no doubt is the reason it is done so quickly – like pulling a thorn out of your arm after a bee stings you.

The upshot of all this is that I’ll recommend that any man over 50 years of age should pick up his hometown phone book and look for a urologist, or call his local hospital for their help in finding one, a common service among hospitals. Call that doctor and set up an appointment for a PSA and DRE. After he finds you free of any sign of cancer in your prostate, be thankful and don’t worry. You’re on the right track in surviving prostate cancer, in yourself at least.

Because, as Lucy would say to Charlie Brown, “Do it, you dumbhead!”