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MEN'S HEALTH MONTH | First Person

Coming Face to Face With a Diagnosis of Cancer

Next week: The return to Earth

June 08, 1998|TONY TAYLOR | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Saturn, Uranus, Neptune.

As an aerospace engineer and interplanetary navigator, I've been to all those places via the Voyager mission. Done 'em! My life is fraught with adventure every few years, one planetary encounter after another. But I've never done Pluto. Never been to that deep dark place full of shadow, cold and potential finality. I get a chance now. If you are one of about 200,000 men in the United States facing a diagnosis of prostate cancer this year, you may also qualify for the trip.

It all comes down to an adventure. Never mind if it's good or bad. I won't know for another few hours--if ever. The unknown beckons: danger, excitement, risk, reward. Only the "if ever" gives me pause.

They come for me, two orderlies, men, black and white, eyes hiding deference, pity, boredom. They fiddle with the gurney outside the door while I fiddle with my thoughts. Is it too late to run down the hallway, smock flapping in the breeze exposing my bare bottom, screaming, "No, no, no, not me, not today, not ever, take somebody else!"

No. Not too late until they lock me down in drug chains. Not too late to scream, but I don't. Instead, when they are finally ready and look expectantly in my direction, I give a big jump into the air and click my heels together. Come down smiling--ta da!--and climb onto the gurney. They've never seen that, I'll bet. Never!

I'm cold, and the first thing they do is drape blankets over me. Warm blankets, fresh from the heater. I'm grateful and shrink up a little so they can cover the length of my body, neck to toe.

Down the hallway feet first. Bye-bye, Jan, I love you. Bye-bye, don't worry.

Down the hallway on my back, feet first through doors, past busy doctors and nurses and waddling patients, reminds me of the pregnant woman in the movie "The Meaning of Life" on her way to a rendezvous with delivery and "the machine that goes beeeep!"

*

Four months earlier I had grunted with pain as a doctor probed my guts with a thick plastic / metal wand pushed up my anus. The pain isn't bad--bearable, certainly. It's the pain of injured dignity that hurts most. I see the shadowy outline of my prostate rolling and sliding across a video screen as the doctor watches intently. OK, let's get some samples, he says. I steel myself.

Snap . . . Snap. Six times snap, the tiny needles dart. At least it's sudden, a quick bite and tug, over instantly. A small quick pain, and it's over. As I pull my underwear and pants up, he tells me to expect a little blood in my urine for a day or two, and I might have bloody semen for a month or so. I'm a little shaky, have to walk gingerly, but it's not too bad. We'll get the results Monday, he says. Make an appointment. Monday? Today's Wednesday. I have to wait almost a week?

*

The score of the prostate specific antigen (PSA) test had been climbing for years. I'd gotten the first one when I was 49, and it was below 4. Four years later it had climbed almost to 7. Worrisome, but not alarming. Finally, when it topped 10, I had my first biopsy. That was last year. Negative. Relief. I know it was a relief, because I cried. After two days of agonized waiting, I received a call from the nurse on Friday, who said, I just want to let you know right now so you won't worry over the weekend that the biopsy was OK.

I held it together for a few polite words of thanks, but as soon as I put down the phone, alone in the house, I was a ball of tears. Oh, God, oh, God, yes, oh, God, thank you. And I don't even believe in God.

Over the course of the year, the PSA had dipped down to 9, then climbed again, above 12. Now, when I'm 55, the biopsy is easier, the wait easier. But this time is different. I have a new doctor. A new nurse ushers me into his office to wait. The formal office, the VIP office, the good-folks office, plush carpet, walnut furniture all around, books and diplomas lining the walls. Not the usual steerage patient's room with the intimidating paper-topped examination table.

Uh-oh. This can only mean one thing.

Something turned up in two of the needles, the doctor says. Oh? I answer, but I already know. Cancer! I have cancer. My status has changed with the status of the cells picked out of the tips of the needles. I am now a cancer patient, and people will look at me differently, those who know. But somehow this time the news is easier than the false alarm of the year before, somehow it's almost old news, has the aura of calm inevitability, humdrum fact.

With this doctor I'm almost unconcerned, almost jaunty. He says: You need surgery before this stuff breaks out of your prostate. I say no way, I'm not missing the launch of the spacecraft I've put seven years of my life into. We agree on a hormone treatment to put me into a holding pattern for four months to shrink the cancer.

The countdown begins. Two months later, Cassini thunders off the launching pad on its way to Saturn while I gird for my trip to Pluto.

*

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