Living within the prostate cancer brotherhood is a highly personal experience.
All of us who have been diagnosed with prostate cancer are members of a brotherhood–an order that provides unique understanding, perspectives and bonds. In the 17 months since my diagnosis, I have learned that as with many fraternal orders, there are also levels. However, in our case, progression through the ranks is neither desired nor encouraged.
In the lowest and perhaps preferred rank are those diagnosed with low grade cancer, for whom we hope watchful waiting or proactive surveillance is all that they will ever require. But, their fears and doubts are the same as all members. What if my PSA levels rise…? When might they rise…? Am I doing enough? What about my family…? Then there are those whose initial treatments were successful, and who have passed that magical milestone and are declared “cancer-free.” For these, there is heartfelt celebration for their victories. I know. My heart lightens and my smile widens everytime I meet a fellow member who shares their marvelous news. I love to hear these stories and I share them with others to provide encouragement and bolster hope.
In the upper ranks of the order are those who have been diagnosed with advanced, metastatic disease. This group has two levels: those, like me, who are in primary treatment and still hope to hear those words–“you are cancer-free”–in a few years; and finally, those whose disease recurs and for whom life becomes a continuing series of treatments and remissions.
Whatever our status is within the order, we are all the same. All of us understand, all too well, the fragile nature of our human existence. We accept and lament our realities. We hope for good outcomes.
Life in the order provides remarkable experiences. Priorities are clear. Exchanges always begin with a sincere “How are you doing?” and a caring visual check or two to confirm the answer. Treatment plans and remission updates are often shared in hopes of providing some data that might be of use to the other. Even what was once a casual greeting in emails,“hope all is well,” takes on new meaning. When one of the brothers falters or has an obvious physical limitation due to current treatment, the physical assist and emotional support are always at hand. It is a kinder, gentler world instilled not by a lack of testosterone, but real human compassion and spirit. You can read it in many of the readers’ comments that appear on this blog.
This past week, I spent time with two extradordinary gentlemen I have had the honor of knowing for some time now. Both are battling recurrent disease. One was a powerhouse in the financial world prior to retirement, the other a powerhouse in government. Both are ardent advocates for curing the disease and big supporters of the work of the Prostate Cancer Foundation. Together, we attended PCF’s annual Scientific Retreat.
During the meeting, the toll that their current drug therapies are extracting from them was visible. Yet, they persevere, moving forward with determination and, as one of them says, “hoping to get another five or more years” out of his current treatment. They have supported numerous clinical trials, helping future patients while also trying to beat their cancer. When one looked at me and said, “Dan, I am blazing trails for you should you ever need them,” I could only put my arm around him and say, “Stop. You’ve blazed enough trails. Let’s see an end to your cancer.”
I know these two gentlemen are sincerely following my progress and hoping I never cross over into their ranks. I too follow their progress and hold them in my prayers and my esteem.
Following the retreat, I was invited to fly back to San Francisco with them on a private jet. As we flew to San Francisco, these two men sat on the other side of the aisle. They chatted a bit about their current progress and then dozed, I could see that the week’s schedule had been taxing. The aisle on the small jet provided but a small separation between them and me. I wondered if I would ever cross that symbolic divide. As I watched them in silence, I knew that, as brothers of the order, they would do anything they could to keep me and countless others from joining them–to keep us from rising in the ranks.
When we landed at SFO, we said our good-byes and embraced.
An embrace from a fellow member of this fraternal order is like no other. Unspoken, and in a way no other exchange can, it says: I wish you peace. I wish you you strength. I wish you life.