In the meantime, I wrote thank you letters to those who had treated me and even met with the chief operating officer of the medical center to let her know how much I appreciated the great care the staff had given me.
All of this was happening just before Christmas, when I received a message from Ms S. She wrote:
“Lee, I don’t think that you can fully realize how much your praise of the staff and experience means to all of us. We frequently get treats from patients and are sometimes thanked in person, but it really is so meaningful that you bring your experience forward on a larger level. It’s a rewarding message to hear at a time that can often be stressful for many of us! So thank you. It goes to show how one person can make a very big impact on the lives of others.”
When Ms S and I met again it was obvious to her that I needed help she wasn’t qualified to provide, so she asked if I would be willing to talk with a cancer counselor. If yes, she would set up an appointment for me. I agreed to meet with Ms K. I learned later that few men take advantage of this support resource and that Ms K’s title is “cancer counselor” because even fewer patients would agree to see a “therapist.”
My Support Structure Broadens
I had kept a journal of my days during radiation therapy. It detailed the interactions between those treating me and my conversations with other men waiting to be treated. I wrote about the minor things that sometimes allowed me the little smile that I so craved, and the side effects that led to some extremely embarrassing moments, and my fear that more might be coming; last, I jotted down some simple suggestions on what would have helped make these weeks of treatments easier — such as having my navigator check in on me, although the feeling of being heard by the counselor was nice. As I am now a caregiver for my wife, who recently finished radiation treatments for breast cancer, I know first-hand that patient interactions with the navigator have greatly increased at this cancer center.
I quickly became comfortable talking with Ms K, and several times I told her stories that had us both laughing out loud. A welcome feeling as I was desperate to get back to enjoying my life again. Ms K was also skilled at asking the tough questions, the ones that often had me looking anywhere but in her eyes, and at times, reaching for a Kleenex. My cancer journey has caused me to become much more emotional, and showing those emotions challenges the strong male image I feel the need to live up to.
Doubt was a problem for me after my diagnosis and treatment. I often second guessed things I had done in the past, questioning how they may have contributed to my cancer diagnosis. In fact, I continue to wonder about things I have done or am doing. I’m not sure who said “Cancer may leave your body, but it will never leave your mind,” but that is an accurate description of my cancer journey.
Invisible Side Effects
With the help of Ms K, I learned breathing exercises that can very helpful. When I had difficulty sleeping through the night, diaphragmatic breathing along with visualization was helpful. Every day I perform my 4, 7, 8 (inhale, hold, and exhale) breathing exercise whenever I need to take a minute to relieve the stress in life or at work. Meditating for a few minutes each morning while listening to a free phone app called Insight Timer was a great help.
The effects of cancer can bring back painful memories from the past. In my case, after learning to trust Ms K, I left her a letter about a trauma I experienced when I was 10 years old. I had never shared this information with anyone. But every word said and action taken had come back to me, and I now felt for the first time that I needed to finally talk about it. Ms K explained that my feelings of embarrassment at dropping my pants in front of the female radiation therapists probably brought back that memory.
Cancer affects you physically in many ways, but there may come a day when the past, the present, and the future all collide and challenge you to survive your thoughts. Financial problems, family issues, no longer being the person you were, and shame can dominate your thoughts. To better understand how those feelings can affect someone and recognize when help is needed, I have twice taken a QPR (Question, Persuade, and Refer) course.
At a support group meeting, I heard a urologist say that prostate cancer turns men into girls. It wasn’t meant to be an insult to women, but the harsh reality is that you will experience many things that are a normal part of life for a woman. If you are honest with a woman who asks, “How you are doing?” you can expect many of them to say, “Now you know what we go through.” Recently, I even heard that from a nurse. Sharing my thoughts and experiences in an open and honest way can be challenging for me; feeling ridiculed after doing so makes me less likely to share further. Because prostate cancer mostly affects men in their 50s and older, I suspect that many patients grew up watching their fathers be the family breadwinner, most likely never showing weakness, and able to handle any situation without help. I believe this is an important thing to keep in mind when discussing diagnosis and treatment with patients.