Eight little words. The doc said, “I wish I had better news for you.”
This came after my regular physical, when my primary care physician had told me, “Your blood test shows a sharply elevated PSA — prostate specific antigen.” Damn. Now I know how women must feel when they hear, “We found something on your mammogram.”
So he sent me to a specialist who performed a thoroughly unpleasant procedure, a prostate biopsy. He told my wife and me, “I didn’t find anything out of the ordinary, but we’ll wait for the pathology report.”
We were so optimistic. I had no symptoms, never got up at night, active as all get out. It had to be an anomaly. Two weeks later he lays those eight words on me, and then says I have aggressive, life-threatening cancer in over half the gland. Uh-oh.
He tells me surgery or radiation is the preferred approach. So it’s a no-brainer, right? The cancer’s aggressive; I have to take care of it, no? Well …
Hearing you have a nasty cancer really focuses you. I’m 66, and both the surgeon and the radiologist said that if I do absolutely nothing I have maybe five to 10 years left. It wouldn’t be a wonderful five or 10 years, and I’d die a painful death, but I’d be into my 70s before it happened.
Considering that as an American male I’m only scheduled to last another 12 years or so anyway, it actually wasn’t the worst thing I’d ever heard. And either the surgery or the radiation carries with it a side-effect that no man wants to contemplate. And right now I have no problem in that area.
Now I have two adult, nicely employed, living-out-on-their-own, independent kids and a wife whom I adore. And I would absolutely miss the living hell out of them. But I’ve been fortunate enough that if I left, they would all be in good shape financially. That’s a comfort to me.
I took an honest inventory of my life and realized that there is nothing more that I need or desperately want to do. The things on my bucket list are all checkmarked as done.
And I’m a believing Catholic. I know that there is an eventual wonderful place for me. I say eventual, because if I take a true assessment of myself I know I certainly have a wad of purgatory time coming my way. Ah, the push-pulls of life, and the pitfalls it gleefully strews along our paths.
I also can’t help but think that maybe destiny has me down as dying from prostate cancer. In the file marked JF Cataldi it might say, “Yep, prostate cancer. Tough break.” What I mean is, suppose I go all out and “beat” this? The research implies that it’s possible. And I’ve always been a gunner. When I put my mind to something …
So say I beat aggressive prostate cancer, what does that open up for my future? Gotta die from something bad, right? As I used to semi-jokingly tell my dental patients, “I’ve studied this, and I’ve never found anyone who died from being too healthy.”
For me, and this is just me, a literal “fate worse than death” would be getting hit with a long-term debilitating, paralyzing stroke, or to suffer from Alzheimer’s. I’d rather die from prostate cancer.
So I lay out all that stylized intellectualization before my kids, and of course they’re not buying it. And my daughter is really in a state. Doesn’t surprise me. Fathers and daughters, huh?
She told me, “Dad, any day that I’m on Earth and you could be, but aren’t, is one day too many.” I tell them that they would be in their mid-30s when I shuffled off this mortal coil; they’d be all right. I raised them. There is no human being alive who knows them better than I do. I’ve given them all the life lessons. I absolutely know they will eventually be just fine.
But despite all of the rumination, contemplation and philosophizing, I’m gonna have the surgery. Because just as it started with eight little words, it ended the same way.
My wife is my soul mate, and I love her so much. And she has never, ever been demanding. But one night she sat me on the couch, reached out to turn my face toward hers and looked at me deeply.
Through misty eyes she said, “I need you, honey. I need you here.”
James F. Cataldi of Moon, a retired dentist, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. The PG Portfolio welcomes “Local Dispatch” submissions and other reader essays. Send your writing to email@example.com; or by mail to Portfolio, Post-Gazette, 34 Blvd. of the Allies, Pittsburgh PA 15222. Portfolio editor Gary Rotstein may be reached at 412-263-1255.