My Cancer Journey Post-Radiation: A Happy Ending?

◼︎MY PERSONAL JOURNEY
◻︎CANCER


This post from February 24 is revised to include an Addendum following my first post-radiation blood test and exam on March 18. The results are very promising as you’ll see at the end here.


This afternoon I completed my 45-day regimen of daily external beam radiation treatments for prostate cancer. Amazingly, most of the side effects I was led to expect have never appeared, or have been mild and intermittent. This radiation treatment has almost qualified as boring. To cap it off, I was presented a “diploma” today marking my graduation! In the front lobby there’s a bell that I rang in celebration, and then staff smothered me in hugs.

The one side effect I have experienced consistently is tiredness and reduced stamina, but even this has been reasonably light and manageable. I can still do pretty much everything I normally do, just less at any one time. For instance I vacuum the house over two days now rather than one. I also had to cut back my daily walks from 30 to 15 minutes, and ultimately stopped altogether. I’ll start up again next week. To my amazement I was able to snow blow and shovel 6 times (!) during the big February 3rd snowmageddon — but I felt it afterwards and was pretty wiped out that weekend. This is all temporary. I expect to regain my usual energy as my body heals over the next few weeks.

Kitty in happier, healthier days.

Most stress these past weeks has been from other life events more than the cancer. I had a flat tire driving home from shopping one night, last week we lost our ailing Kitty to her own cancer battle after 16 years, and both our stove and rice cooker died in a single night. The stove went out with a startling BANG! and left us in the dark as it tripped the main breaker for the whole house. It’s still not fixed. Radiation, you say? Eh! Not a problem!

I feel unbelievably fortunate and extremely grateful! But it wouldn’t be difficult to experience survivor’s guilt as well. I’ve lost friends and neighbors to prostate cancer, and I know others who are surviving but battling. I hold them in my heart and hope for their recovery and peace of mind. I wish their journey could be different.

I don’t know each person’s individual circumstances and story, but I can say with certainty that all men should get regular PSA blood tests. If discovered early enough and treated properly, most prostate cancer these days is survivable — in the high 90-percentile range! Men over 40 should discuss testing with their doctor and by age 55 all men should get tested at least annually.

A big factor in prostate cancer is access to affordable quality healthcare. A lot of men simply don’t have the healthcare they need, especially low-income workers and minorities. They can’t get a PSA test, prostate exam or cancer treatment. I see the Medicare information and my treatment costs a fortune. I’ll take this up another day, but the United States ranks 22nd in healthcare, and is the only wealthy industrialized nation without universal health care. Even those of us with coverage suffer under this system where U.S. insurance companies have refused or been late to approve treatments and technologies used abroad with great success.

The Next Phase of My Cancer Journey

I’ve reached a milestone but my journey isn’t over. Cancer is forever. Even when it’s believed you’re cured it’s important to remain vigilant forever, alert to any signs of recurrence.

In my case we assume the radiation has succeeded, but it’s not confirmed yet. In a month, after my body heals, I will get a new PSA test. Thereafter I’ll be tested again every 3 months for several years. If all looks good we’ll step it down to every 6 months and finally annually.

Hopefully my PSA level will be barely detectible. At that point the assumption will be I’m cured, but we’ll still keep watching. If my PSA starts to rise again in the months or years ahead, that could signal that some cancer escaped my prostate, traveled elsewhere, and evaded the radiation.

That would not be good, of course, but isn’t immediate cause for great alarm either. With the new PSMA PET Scans now available, the odds are excellent that this other cancer could be precisely located and eradicated.

Northern Ohio Regional Cancer Center

I owe my life, frankly, to my urologist first, but then to all the people at the Northern Ohio Regional Cancer Center: Dr. Jon Prescott, Dr. Adir Ludin, nurse Mary and all the kind technicians who cared for me everyday. All of them extended every effort each day to make the experience as comfortable as possible. Frankly I will actually miss them! This alone is a testament to how wonderful they’ve been, making what started as a scary diagnosis into a “pleasant” experience.

Screenshots

Treatments were always very timely so little time was spent in the waiting room, but even there I found the experience interesting. They have big-screen television that’s usually tuned to Grit TV, a network I’d never heard of. WEWS-TV here carries it on their digital sub channel 5.2. Each day at the time I was waiting for treatment Grit was showing The Deputy, a series that aired on NBC from 1959 to 1961. It wasn’t the greatest show by any stretch, but I was surprised to see that it starred Henry Fonda! This was after Twelve Angry Men and shortly before Fail Safe. I was amazed. I never knew that he did a weekly TV series and certainly not when he was doing so much other significant work. I enjoyed watching him each day, but never saw enough to know what the episode was about.

Attitude

It’s commonly believed that a positive attitude can help one to fight their cancer. I believe this is true, but at the emotional or spiritual level. The American Cancer Society reports, “Studies have shown that keeping a positive attitude does not change the course of a person’s cancer. Trying to keep a positive attitude does not lead to a longer life and can cause some people to feel guilty when they can’t ‘stay positive.’ This only adds to their burden.”

I’ve been doing a series of Headspace meditations focused on cancer, and the guide has explained that “nature will do its thing.” The act of meditating doesn’t affect the disease itself.

However the American Cancer Society also reports that “guided imagery or other similar techniques [like meditation] can […] help with many symptoms related to cancer and cancer treatment. Some of these include pain, fatigue, nausea, vomiting and retching, anxiety and depression. Practicing guided imagery and relaxation may help improve quality of life.”

I’m not sure whether the relative ease in my case has been strictly physical or aided by the attitude I’ve strived to apply during this journey. Although I’ve had moody days for one unrelated reason or another, I’ve spent little or no time fretting or ruminating about the cancer. It took a month or so after the initial diagnosis to settle down and accept it, but since then I’ve felt pretty much at peace. If anything, I’ve complained a few times about the tedious daily interruptions having to stop whatever I’m doing and drive to treatment. But otherwise David and I have actually kidded and joked about it all quite a bit.

To start, I’ve had to wear sweat pants each day and all we could find when shopping was a really icky green. David swears he’s going to burn them now! I’ve also been required to drink a lot of water before each treatment, and it takes me a while to pee it all out afterward. (Sorry for the TMI.) I can’t make it all the way home without stopping halfway at a BP station. Siri has figured out that I stop there everyday and so, with no prompting by me, Siri now shows the ETA to the bathroom!

I think accepting the inescapable fact of cancer, and finding humor in its absurdities, frees the body’s resources to fight as best it can. It’s true that only radiation or chemo or whatever will actually kill cancer cells, but the body isn’t just a passive bystander. To the extent it can play a role in combatting the cancer, it needs all the resources it can bring to bear.

If one’s energy is consumed in being upset, I believe the body is forced to fight a war on two fronts: the physical and the emotional. Spared that burden, I believe the body has a better chance.


Addendum

On Friday, March 18th I returned to the Cancer Center to get the results of my first post-radiation PSA test: 3.36. At first I was a bit dismayed. I was expecting and hoping for a lower score but the doctors assured me this is about as good as it gets at just three weeks following External Beam Radiation. According to the American Cancer Society, it can take up to two years following radiation before PSA reaches its lowest level. I started at above 10 when I began treatment, so this is a huge improvement!

We will continue to monitor my status every three months for the next several years. If my PSA remains steady or declines, we can pretty much assume that we have successfully eradicated the cancer. In other words, cured!

As I’ve said, however, my cancer journey is for life. We will need to be on guard forever. But as it stands today, things look excellent and I am exceedingly grateful!

I want to take a moment to thank all the friends, neighbors and family who have supported me and encouraged me, plus The Gathering Place, my urologist and everyone at the Northern Ohio Regional Cancer Center. You’ve all been wonderful!

Last but not least, I send out love and best wishes to everyone fighting cancer.


Title image credit: Andrey_Popov/Shutterstock


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