When set against the gift of life he gave me it’s a small complaint, but my surgeon forgot to mention I’d end up with two belly buttons. Today on my birthday I lift my shirt and look again in the bathroom mirror at my new stomach, replete with its six wounds, the most obvious the big one that dimples right above my old bellybutton. It was here where the robot, guided by the surgeon, Dr. Anidjar, pulled my prostate in a little cloth sack out of my body, and with it, I hope, all of the cancer. A re-birth of sorts, its evidence a hole from the mechanical umbilical cord.
I am unimaginably fortunate. Dr. Anidjar called me at home to tell me the news. The biopsy on the removed gland had come back from the lab. Rather than the localized tumours that the MRIs and the initial biopsies indicated, final tests showed there had been cancer on both sides. But when the medical staff tested the margins of the prostate, they showed no cancer. The surgeon’s conclusion: the cancer was spreading, but it never breached the gland. They got it. In that moment he sounded happier than, oddly enough, I felt. As I stammered out some kind of response he said ‘Don’t thank me. Thank Doug.’
“Doug” is my urologist. He is also, coincidentally, my ex-father-in-law, normally the last person – other than your actual ex – you want poking about your private parts. Yet he was the one to urge me, despite my reluctance, to have a second biopsy. The day I stood in his office digesting the bad news of my results Doug (Dr. Morehouse) stood up, came around from his desk and hugged me. As we awkwardly embraced I experienced so many competing discomforts there was no way to keep them straight: the realization that for a surgeon to hug you after a cancer report is probably a very bad thing, remembering happier hugs in happier times at their family cottage, trying to absorb the fact that he had just used the word “survivability”, or wondering how my ex father-in-law meant it when he told me that if I wasn’t going to be smart enough for my own sake to have surgery, I should for the sake of his grand-daughter.
To Dr. Anidjar on the phone, I said: “I’m thankful to you both.”
The reason I am unimaginably fortunate is only my lack of imagination when it came to cancer. This is not normally a problem for me, but a certain numbness set in two years ago and never really went away. I hadn’t imagined – or allowed myself to imagine – that the cancer had, as they say, “gotten free”. Free for what? So far, at every major step of this process, I’ve assumed the best possible outcome. And so far, at every major step, I’ve been wrong. When my PSA was high, I just assumed I had an enlarged prostate. True, but there was cancer. Then when I had my second biopsy I dreamed the tumors would have shrunk or disappeared, because of the typical lassitude of prostate cancer, and from my change of diet and positive attitude. None of those hurt me, but my cancer didn’t care. It had spread anyway. So when I was waiting to hear the oncology report on the removed tissue, the best I could manage was a kind of emptiness. Not visualizing good results. Just not visualizing anything.
Then the news, the “envelope is clear”. When I put down the phone, and before I began the round of phone calls and emails and texts that took the next couple of hours, I was in a state of shock. Was, I say. Still am.
It’s taken me the last two years just to begin coming to terms with having cancer. I’ve finally been able to say the word about myself without either imagining I’m a character in a short story or keeping one eye on the person I’m talking to, to check their reaction and therefore guess at what mine should be. I was far from coming to own the word, but I was beginning to adjust.
Cancer has been, in its own weird way, a liberation. For the first time in my adult life, I felt free to tell people I didn’t want to do certain things, good responsible things, for the sole reason that I didn’t care to. I gave different excuses, but sometimes I was just making them up. Underneath all of them was the feeling that maybe I don’t have much time. I’ve spent money more freely, traveled at every opportunity, let emails slip by and commitments sometimes go unanswered. Cancer allows you to be more honestly selfish. I’ve been frenetic at times, slightly depressed at others. I’ve begun to say, at least to myself: ‘I have more important things to do’. In these last few weeks since the surgery I’ve experienced being helpless, and having to be taken care of, which is not easy, sometimes for the caregivers (ask Cathy, who saw me stricken and waited patiently) sometimes for me. I’ve learned enough bravado now to walk into a drug store and ask for male under-pads and tell the clerk that no, it’s okay, I will walk out without having to hide them. To fancy that I’m like a Shakespearean actor and instead of being shameful, they’re rather like a codpiece. We all handle embarrassment in different ways.
I guess I’m a cancer survivor. I know there are other people who get worse news from their doctors. I don’t know why it is this way for me, now: why my slide into this particular tragedy seems to have stopped here. I don’t trust the news, of course. Part of me fears the disease is just biding its time, waiting to come back if I should forget it and become arrogant about life and longevity. It’s a kind of superstition, I know, and it tempers my thankfulness. But it’s what feels most natural today. So on my birthday I lift my shirt and look in the mirror at my second belly button and think about rebirth. I wonder sometimes if symbolic things happen to me or if I’m just one of those people who tends to see the symbolic in everything that happens.