The year of living cancerously

It’s now almost exactly a year since I discovered the Unwelcome Guest had set up shop in my prostate. The presumptuous little bastard.

To celebrate, and I’m going for gold in the most inappropriate use of an English word, I thought I’d look back on my year of living cancerously; not so much at the treatment and side-effects but rather at what it does to your life. SPOILER ALERT: It’s not all depressing.

One in two people in the UK will develop cancer at some point so to some degree it’s a shadow that hangs over us all but make no mistake there is a significant difference between a potential threat and the real deal. If you become a member of the cancer club, the club that nobody wants to join, it packs a punch. When the doctor looked at my scan and I got my first glimpse of the Guest, I broke into a sweat, felt faint and thought I’d collapse but lay down and gathered myself. I cried when Mrs Preen and I parted at the tube station.

Take the following thoughts and questions, mix them in a blender, and you’ll get a sense of how it feels in the first few days: What is a PSA test? How much is the biopsy going to hurt? Will I be here next year? What do I tell my 15-year-old daughter? What’s a Gleason score? Why me you bastard? For best effect have these going around your head at three in the morning while working up a muck sweat of worry.

Catch cancer early and you have a decent chance of survival. Fortunately my cancer was mostly contained within my prostate with the Guest just nudging one lymph node. When AA Gill was diagnosed with terminal lung cancer, he described himself as having the Full English. Mine is more of a continental breakfast, but no one should ever get complacent; what was once a croissant can soon become a fry-up.

In 2008 PJ O’Rourke was diagnosed with a treatable form of cancer. He quipped: “I looked death in the face. All right, I didn’t. I glimpsed him in a crowd.” I guess the same goes for me. I once got drunk with PJ in Mogadishu when we were both there working for ABC News. We quoted Auden and Yeats at each other, pretentious little pricks, but I’m happy to say he’s still very much alive.

Pretty much at the outset I was given a 50/50 chance of my cancer being cured and if not cured, was told it had the potential to be managed successfully for a number of years. Dan, a fellow blogger, and prostate cancer patient has a warning: ‘Once you introduce the word cancer into your vocabulary, it never goes away, even if the disease does. There will always be that little cloud called “fear of recurrence” that will follow you around for the rest of your days’.

Perhaps its superstition or perhaps it’s just good sense but Dan’s wary of ever saying one is cured or cancer free. Maybe it’s like being an alcoholic, you are only ever a recovering alcoholic even if you haven’t had a drink in 30 years. He likes the acronym NED, ‘no evidence of disease.’ Saying you’re cured is dangerous; you may think you’re done with cancer, but cancer may not be done with you.

I follow a Facebook page ‘Prostate Cancer UK Support Group’ where others with their own Unwelcome Guests post their stories, conditions and questions. Many are poignant, funny and some unbelievably sad. I’ve seen posts detailing men who are diagnosed while still in their forties and early fifties, which seems so unbelievably unfair. Many also find the treatments that I’m on such as hormone therapy and radiotherapy almost unendurable. While everyone’s treatment will differ so will their reaction to the treatments and side-effects.

But of course it’s not just the patient who has to live with cancer, his family are also on the same unwelcome journey. Right from the outset I took the decision to be upbeat and to make the journey as bearable for them as I could.

Yesterday Mrs Preen and I took the dog for a longish walk in the countryside and I asked what it was like to be married to a husband who was foolish enough to develop prostate cancer. Her answer came in two equally surprising parts. First, she said she was worried she didn’t worry enough about me! Not, she was quick to reassure me, because she didn’t care but because she was convinced all would be well. She said that if on balance I’d like her to worry more she would get right down to it.

I’ve mentioned this before elsewhere, but she said she continues to be astonished at how remarkably upbeat I am most days and actually less grumpy than prior to my diagnosis. I guess all wives can use a less grumpy husband, but why this should happen after contracting cancer seems to defy logic. But you know what? I’m not going to dig too deeply into the whys and wherefores and just be happy that’s the case. There’s plenty of time to be miserable should the Unwelcome Guest decide to go medieval on me.

And what of my teenage daughter, what are her thoughts? She knows I have cancer, but I rarely mention my condition or treatments. I’ve done this to protect her, but it occurred to me that my cancer might be seen as off limits; something that shouldn’t be mentioned. What could be worse than fretting about something you can’t talk about? So, we had a chat about it and apparently her mother had told her that dad wasn’t going to die anytime soon and that had offered enough reassurance. At 15 there’s lots of other stuff going on and heaven knows I don’t want to be a worry when the spectre of GCSEs is causing enough terror all by itself.

When you tell people you have cancer, they don’t say it, but their first thought is, he’s going to die soon. That’s a reasonable assumption because that’s exactly what I thought when I was first diagnosed. I’ve got a pretty good shot at traveling on a few more years but I don’t know for sure where I’m headed and at some point, it might not be in a very desirable direction. Then I reserve the right to be less cheerful. But right now what cancer gives me is all the encouragement I need to live in the moment. When I was young the future was like a huge jigsaw puzzle that I’d construct when I finally got around to it. At almost 65 and living with cancer, the future is now.


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