When my friend started giving me books about Buddhism, I became irritated. Building on past experience, I knew that there was something there for me to learn. The stronger my irritation the more valuable the lessons were. Writings by Pema Chodrun were especially helpful.
When we are facing the possibility of our death or the loss of someone we love, what can we do? Fear is a useful emotion – it tells us to protect ourselves, to take action. But if our actions may not help, what do we do?
Fear, sitting in my chest can overwhelm me. I can use immense amounts of my energy suppressing fear – stuffing it deep inside. But at a huge cost. Or I can express it – talking to those I trust – or I can into the forest and scream it out of my body. There is merit in both approaches.
Or, as I recently learned, I can simply release my fear. I call this being “softly fearless”.
I am grateful
Several years ago, when I was forced to retire, a friend reached out to me with this poem. I sort of knew then that huge life challenges give us a chance to grow – to learn – to become closer to our souls, more powerful, happier, wiser… It turned out to be true then, and true again when I got prostate cancer (What in the world is the right word for that? I didn’t go out and ‘get’ anything – I developed? I became ill?).
I am turning 75 this year – another opportunity – and I feel incredibly lucky.
So….I hope that men reading this who are facing illness, change, aging will find what is written here helpful. Men have been taught to be strong and silent, which is admirable. BUT older men suicide more often than any other group, and the rate for men with prostate cancer is even higher.
You may feel you are finished. But you are not.
I just finished today a wonderful book by authors Jim Horton and Don Bowak called Marking Life Stages which describes how New Zealanders offer opportunities for their young people to engage in safe and secure rituals that assist them in their transition from being children to being adults. They describe a thoughtful and intentional process wherein parents, guides and elders lead young people through their passage from childhood to adulthood.
We all have many transition points in our lives – going to school, graduation, first drink, first kiss, first job, marriage, – that powerfully influence the rest of our lives.
Shooting a coyote on my fathers farm was one of those transition points for me. It may be the reason that I never became a hunter. The coyote was not harming me or our farm. In fact, he had followed me for several days as I cultivated the field.
I never told anyone about what I had done. In hindsight, I wish I had talked about it with someone older and wiser. But I did not.
Now that I am old, it occurs to me that in our society, we do not place enough attention on having rites of passage, for our children, but also for men and women my age. A retirement party, some speeches and off we go. I used to think that adolescence was the most challenging time of a person’s life. But now, the data says that older men have the highest rates of suicide. And in the subset of men with prostate cancer the rate is higher still.
I am interested in developing ways that elders can assist children grow into adults as well developing ways that we older people can assume more elder roles in our communities
I think we need to talk about this. A lot.
I remember thinking my Dad was being uncharacteristically dramatic when, after buying a new Ford Crown Victoria in 1981, he said it would be the last car he would ever buy. Now that I am the same age as he was then, I understand. Sweet memories. I wish he was still with us – I would love to talk with him now about how to be a man. I didn’t then appreciate fully how wise and strong he was.
Writing poetry is a way for me to talk with him. I like to think he would be interested. I imagine him listening, considering and giving me his response. I would love that so much.
Having cancer has helped me explore what it means to be a man. Perhaps any life changing event would do that. Life becomes precious. All of the good things become precious – the people I love, my country, the earth. And I want more and more to understand everything. I intend to write about this – moving on from understanding prostate cancer to trying to understand life.
In future blogs, I will be posting poems about power, weakness, soul, fairness, bullying, gratitude, prayer, sadness, happiness, toughness, terrorists, envy, lust, anger, pride, a lot about fear and a lot about love. And anything else that comes to mind.
I think Dad will be watching. I will try to live up to his example.
That Crown Victoria was his last car. He died ten years later.
For the first half century or so of a man’s life after puberty – or at least my life, it often seemed that everything was about sex. Wonderful. Demanding. Challenging. Perfect. Not Perfect. And so on.
Then came prostate surgery. Then came age. And nothing is as it was. Not lost. Different.
This is humbling. I do not have cancer. My energy is returned. I went for a run and I was not tired. I wonder how much of my tiredness before was related to low iron and how much to fear. Anyhow this old boat seems to be a good metaphor for me/my life – I am working on it.
I apologize for my absence. I have been tired for several months, I have been afraid and I have been denying that I am afraid. For a long time, I said to myself that I was only afraid of screwing up the process of posting. And while it is true that I do not enjoy the technicalities of blogging, that is a deception.
I have been afraid that being tired and having pain in my arms means that I have cancer again. Tests show that my iron is low and I will receive the result of further tests in a couple of days.
I am unclear about what I do feel. Cowardly maybe?
Anyhow. I am back.
I am not sure that I really understood how I felt when I was first diagnosed. I think it was a kind of panic.
I was trying to find out exactly what was happening to me and what could happen. I did not want to do anything to my body that might effect my ability to make love.
I read that when prostate cancer moves into our bodies one of the symptoms is that our bones begin to ache. Soon after reading this, the bones in my legs began to ache. I told the radiologist about this and he scheduled an MRI. The results came back quite quickly and the results showed that there was no cancer whatsoever outside of my prostate. Immediately, the pains went away.
I think this was panic.
It has taken me most of a lifetime to realize that I usually try to avoid feeling pain – by getting busy, by starting something new, by thinking of another time – by doing anything except feeling. At some point in my life I had decided that when I was feeling uncomfortable I could deal with it by distracting myself. It usually worked in the short run. My sort term distractions included drinking, driving too fast, sex, getting angry, being critical and more acceptable ones like running and working.
Now, sometimes when I begin to be aware of feelings of anxiety, I remember this poem and say it to myself over and over. I find that as I stay still, I become quieter, calmer and sometimes I slowly become aware that I am feeling and what I am feeling. I let it be. And it helps.
I am interested in how others of you deal with the pain of emotion and I invite you to share your thoughts and experiences in this blog. It is not necessary to identify yourself unless you want to.
Having had cancer is no treat, but it has helped me to know myself better.
Not everything about my cancer was sad or scary. I still had to get up in the morning and do things. It seemed sort of funny, in a way, that while I was worried about treating my cancer, impotence and incontinence, I still had to go to the can, brush my teeth, clean the house, repair the car……
Probably this was the beginning of my going deeper into myself – deeper than being afraid or angry.
My experience of cancer brought with it, among other things, greater peace and strength.
If I had it to do over, I would be much more assertive and much less trusting. I didn’t ask my surgeon how successful he had been, what his strengths were, his failures, and so forth. If I had it to do over, I would use all the strategies I know how to use when buying things like cars, toasters, houses and etc.
I would ask questions like:
How many of these surgeries have you done?
How do you define success?
How many of your patients maintained their ability to have erections?
How many became incontinent?
Why does it take so long to schedule treatment when we are told our cancer is aggressive?
Every professional I saw tried their best. My surgeon recommended a prostatectomy, my radiologist recommended radiation, my counselor didn’t recommend any specific course, but said that watchful waiting would be a possibility. In the end, with a Gleason score of 8 (high), I choose surgery. Following surgery a biopsy was done which indicated my score was almost two points lower. At that level, watchful waiting would have been a more acceptable choice. If I had it to do over….I think I would have asked to have a second biopsy before any treatment.
Now, ten years later I have no trace of prostate cancer. I am healthy.
I spent years second guessing my choice. I experienced grief on the loss of my ability to experience the wonderful sensations of becoming physically aroused. Letting go took a very long time.
Today, I strive, and often succeed at being aware of and grateful for what I have right now, which is quite wonderful.
Poison. Betrayal. Despair. When I wrote this poem, I was flailing about. It seemed so unjust that my body, and in particular, that part of my body which had, throughout my life, brought unimaginable physical and spiritual pleasure, would now possibly be the source of my death.
If you find this poem and my thoughts of value, I invite you to revisit my blog and read about my book Ripped Out: One Man’s Journey Surviving Prostate Cancer. You may download an e-copy for free or, if you wish purchase a printed copy for $14.95 plus shipping.
Please consider posting your thoughts on this blog. Hearing how others have or are coping with their cancer or the cancer of someone they love will help me on my journey and I believe it will be helpful to others.
I have had what seems to me to be an odd experience with fear as I went through the stages of diagnosis, treatment and recovery. Odd in that I did not actually feel afraid. I knew that my cancer could kill me, but I didn’t go into it. Instead, I put a lot of energy denying all of my feelings. It wasn’t until several years after my surgeries that I felt a lot of anger and by then, my PSA readings were consistently low, so I no longer had reason to be afraid that I would die.
I have come to realize that I have lived with a lot of fears that I continually, with great effort, deny. Then finally, I realize that speaking my fears out loud actually gives me relief.
I am very interested in others’ experiences – allowing feelings or not?
Beginning with my diagnosis 2006, I began to write everyday about what was happening to me and how I was reacting. Eventually, I transposed my daily journal writings into a book called Ripped Out: One Man’s Journey Surviving Prostate Cancer.
Writing everyday saved me from despair. Pulling those writings into a book was one of the most rewarding experiences of my life.
Most of my daily comments took the form of a poem. The one on the right, ‘Ripped Out’, gave voice to what I had done. I somehow felt, in part, that I had let myself down. It felt very good to say sorry to my body.
The whole experience was difficult for me to understand – complicated. Writing the poem somehow let it all out and helped me to move on.
I would very much like to hear from others of their (your) experience. Did it feel like part of you had been ripped out?