PART 21 of My PC Adventure – see full story HERE>
The headline for this - the penultimate chapter of my prostate story - isn’t what it seems.
It’s not a goodbye, nor a resignation to impending death, nor a signal I’m giving in to the vicissitudes of age.
It’s a metaphor, of course, drawn from a famous NZ play by that name ( The End of the Golden Weather by Bruce Mason ) which spoke to my boyhood of “…the eternal optimism of the child and the harsh certainty of age…”
To quote one tribute to Mason’s 1959 work:
“Golden Weather tells the story of the loss of innocence and of human fallibility…”
The end of my golden weather refers, in part, to the “official” finish of my recovery from the surgery that took out the prostate cancer, a two-month idyll during which I’ve researched and written about prostate cancer in this forum, which began as a personal blog and has grown to a website with a following around the world.
(That’s one reason, incidentally, why I have explained “end of the golden weather” – now two of five visitors to this site are from the US. The proportion of Kiwi readers is about one in three).
In this case, “end of the golden weather” also has a literal meaning, since my time at home has been blessed with a remarkable (for Wellington) patch of fine, still weather, an “Indian summer“.
In the last few days, winter has roared in from the Antarctic, bringing snow to the South Island and to hills around Wellington.
Rain hits the windows on the southerly side of the house as I write this, and I know the days of teeshirts and sunhats are over for a while.
Tomorrow, I return to work. Truly, the end of the golden weather, but in fact something well overdue if I am to feel fully restored.
Which is what I want to write about: how do I feel about what’s happened (that classically banal and inappropriate journalistic question)?
Perhaps I should begin with what I don’t feel.
I don’t feel old. At 62, the body and mind are in the kind of shape my parents’ generation, the Depression and war-shaped cohort, associated with their 40s. My mindset accords with that silly epithet, “60 is the new 40″.
I am getting old, of course, but cancer has had no obvious role in that gradual process.
It didn’t turn my beard white, steal the hair from the top of my head, slow up my legs in social soccer games, nor account for loss of memory for people’s names after we’ve just been introduced, nor the keeping to speed limits, and restricting of booze intake to a Heinie a day, and the working day hours to no more than a dozen.
All those things have been creeping up since I was 30.
I don’t feel debilitated. I’m back to the fitness I enjoyed prior to the operation in March, easily able to walk briskly over my personal training challenge, Wellington’s Mt Victoria.
These pictures show the 151 steps I climb on the route to the top, and a view from that top after my first post-surgery ascent, about six weeks after the operation:
As I rather over-excitedly reported in an earlier chapter, my urinal turn-around time is reduced to that of a youngster.
I have no major problems with incontinence – just a little drip of a leak sometimes when I’m tired and forget to brace the pelvic muscle when I laugh or cough.
And the big one – suffice to say, that’s not a problem either, without the use of Cialis or the dreaded injections. Bang goes my excuse to browse in the adult shops for a cheap pump.
I don’t feel apprehensive. I’ve got cancer, but we got it early, it would seem, and it was slow-growing – Gleason grade 6 (I’m now thinking it was there for years before my GP, bless him, encountered it with his digit).
It hadn’t migrated out of the prostate, and prior to the operation my PSA was a mere .77.
I’m a little less sanguine about the “let’s cut the bastard out and be done with it” mindset I had early on, because research tells me there’s never any guarantee that something microscopic didn’t escape into my system during the op, or even during the biopsy. Highly unlikely…but possible.
I expect when my PSA is tested in August I’ll show the required nil level, but I’ve also read data which shows it might rise again after a couple of years. I need to show nil PSA for a decade before I can possible say I’m cured.
But something has changed. Ever so subtly.
It can only be described as an odd sense of betrayal. My body – until now more or less organically sound – has finally let me down in a most shocking way.
Okay, I’ve had marginally elevated cholesterol since 1991, but there is still medical disagreement about what that actually means. And I take a light dosage of blood pressure medication for something that runs in the family.
Neither of these has felt anything other than a mild indication of getting through the years towards maturity.
But cancer! That’s systems failure. That’s involved the first major invasion of my body, leaving a scar (physical and mental), and thoughts – which will no doubt recede – of organic deterioration, of a hurrying of the first steps towards the grave.
It does, doesn’t it, but actually it’s not something I’m dwelling on in a neurotic way. It emerges merely as one of the more philosophical after-effects of a mortal event, a reminder that, yes, there is death at the end of the journey, and there’s no way to dodge it.
It doesn’t affect my optimistic view of life in the slightest.
I come from a line of long-livers. My great grand-father died in his baker’s shop in London at the age of 99. My grandfather lived to 84, and my father convinced himself he would go at the same age, so did. On my mother’s side (she lived to 80), there was grandma lasting till 94 and grandfather going to 86. We don’t pop off early in my family.
Age expectation is a tricky calculation, incidentally. One of the interesting things in Michael Dattoli’s new prostate cancer book (reviewed recently on this blogsite) is a reminder that average longevity calculated at birth (about 78 for male Kiwis) is way shorter than that enjoyed by someone at 60 and beyond.
This chart from the Dattoli book shows what I mean:
This is important in the debate about population-based prostate screening. One of the arguments against it (and against surgical treatment after about 75) is the thesis that because many tumours are slow-growing, something else will getya before the prostate.
As age expectation rises significantly once you’ve reached 60 (compared with what you started out with, when accidents and other factors are probably much more influential), so presumably does the point at which “watchful waiting” should apply.
My life expectation in terms of surviving prostate cancer is also being extended as we speak by the massive effort by scientists and doctors – in the US especially – to achieve breakthroughs in testing, diagnosis and treatment.
Any time soon they’re going to find a quick, non-invasive method of helping the medics know how bad the cancer is and how (or if) it should be treated.
This is undoubtedly an effect of the great surge into old age of my generation, the baby boomers, with our more positive attitude to aging and our demands (and wherewithal to pay) for better medical options.
So. How am I feeling?
Bloody good, bloody lucky, bloody optimistic.
Even so, I will be taking a few precautions.
The number of red meat meals will be dropped from four or five a week to one or two, the already fat-free diet will be applied even more rigorously, the brisk walks will be taken even more regularly, stress at work will be avoided (hah!), sunsets and scenery will be noted more diligently, the regular evening hit of red wine will be replaced with pomegranate juice (which looks exactly the same in a wine glass and, amazingly, tastes like a slightly sweet version of a Central Otago pinot noir)…but the single daily can of that nectar of life, the Heineken (no, they’re not paying me a cent), will continue.
This weekend we had a pleasant visit from my journalist colleague, Barry Young, who also happens to be president of the NZ Prostate Cancer Foundation.
Barry is 10 years free of prostate cancer after his prostatectomy, his PSA is nil, he can enjoy a good glass or three of red wine, and he tucked into seconds of lamb shanks (grown on the open fields of the Canterbury Plains, no doubt).
I’d be tempted to say us journos have an extra gene that bodes well when we get prostate cancer, but I know that’s not true (witness the death of the legendary Frank Haden a couple of years ago).
But our sense of outrage might help. It comes from our journalism-driven suspicion that there are people in positions of medical power who – with their dogmatic opposition to the promotion of prostate testing - are deciding the fate of a lot of men in this country.
This comment in no way applies to the medics who have treated me – surgeon Rodney Studd and the team at Wellington Hospital, Bob Hale at the urology department, the nurse-manager of the rehab clinic, and to GP Rob McIlroy.
Thanks to them, I feel confident of a long life. I don’t care about speaking too soon - I’m just not suspicious about tempting fate.
NEXT (some time away): PSA - wherefore art thou?