As a man, I felt suddenly emasculated, stuck with a limp dick. I received a penile implant, but I can no longer ejaculate. These were new realities to my life, ones that felt like I was losing parts of my identity I wasn’t at all willing to sacrifice.
I stopped sleeping well. I kept having the same dream: I’m back in the emergency room in Kandahar, before I was diagnosed, and I can’t shake the feeling that my body is trying to tell me that something’s wrong.
That was how I had found out. February 13th, 2013. I had been getting ready to deploy to Afghanistan, and the doctors found prostate-specific antigens in my system. Every man has them, and levels around 3 or 4ng/ml can be normal, can mean nothing’s wrong. But the higher the level, the more the likelihood that you have prostate cancer increases. They did a biopsy to be safe, before I was sent off. And that was when they knew.
More tests. Bone scans, CAT scans, screenings to see if the cancer had spread to my bones, my brain, my blood. Nothing detected there. I went for a second opinion, and got the same diagnosis. An aggressive case of prostate cancer. My PSA levels had risen from 3 ng/ml to 24 in three months.
Then came the treatment. I had my first surgery in May, and began 40 days of radiation in mid-August. I was put on a female hormone to diminish my testosterone levels. The oncologist told me that treatment was my best hope.
Throughout this process of being diagnosed and treated, I became angry, and I used that anger to say, “Fuck you” to cancer every chance that I had. I put distance between myself and my diagnosis; cancer was an adversary, and one I could fight. I did yoga, drank green juice, kept healthy and busy. Shortly after my surgery, even with a catheter, I started walking and later successfully ran a 5k. I worked all but 2 days during my radiation therapy.
Cancer was not my life, would never define me, but it did create strains I had to adapt to. My anger helped to drive me, but it also shielded me from fully realizing the trauma and the fear that I was experiencing. If I worked hard enough, I didn’t have to feel the weight of my diagnosis. Instead, I could be upset at the way it changed my circumstances. I wasn’t going to get to deploy to Afghanistan. I could no longer take part in the adventure that I love.
It hurt my family as well, including issues of sexual dysfunction that affected my relationship with my spouse. As a man, I felt suddenly emasculated, stuck with a limp dick. I received a penile implant, but I can no longer ejaculate. These were new realities to my life, ones that felt like I was losing parts of my identity I wasn’t at all willing to sacrifice. And still, there is the unpredictability of the illness. There is no current evidence of disease in my body, but every time I take a blood test I hold my breath. Every time, I hope that I miss that bullet.
Having those dreams helped me confront the fact that I had experienced trauma. I can’t say if going through this trauma, of experiencing cancer, has made me a stronger person. I was a 57 year old veteran when I was diagnosed. I just knew if I could get through post-traumatic stress disorder from my military service, I could get through cancer. Especially because I had better support with the cancer than with the PTSD. Neither is easy, but I never quit. Some of the identities that I had died, but I wouldn’t let my brain overthink my situation. Sometimes, processing means detaching and looking outside of myself.
I had to work through my issues with my identity on my own. With all I was doing to maintain my physical health, I probably should have gotten more help with the mental as well. The prostate cancer support group was bullshit–just a bunch of older guys wishing that they could have sex. That wasn’t me. The reactions I’d get from some people also didn’t help. I stopped being surprised at people who have a hard time being close to a disease like cancer, who can’t separate you, the person, from it, the sickness. Others could be dismissive, or overly sympathetic, or plain don’t know how to engage with you because they don’t have the skill set to be able to. People are just people. Few people can be with you no matter what.
The ones who can, though, are special. Find them. Look for those empathetic friends. That was something I wish I had been told before I began to go through this part of my life. If there’s an agency, clergy, or counselor that you trust, they can help with the grief, the changes, and the trauma. Find strength in a power greater than yourself and hold it close. Again, people are just people. Even with all that we are capable of on our own, we don’t have to go through trauma alone.
By: Schuyler Cunningham and Marcelo Rivera-Figueroa on behalf of Interviewee