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Present: A Journey Through Death and Cancer

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The tale of my prostate cancer journey starts nearly 50 years ago with a statement my late wife, Joan Edwards, made one morning in elementary school.

Her teacher called roll.

"Betsy B.?"

"Here."

"Daniel C."

"Here."

"Joan Edwards?"

"Present."

At which point the entire room burst into laughter. Joan's way her entire life was to make a joke that concurrently revealed a truth.

Present. Attentive. As the writer Henry James said, "Be a person on whom nothing is lost."

Her humor was also informed by loss. Joan had been 16 when her mother died, lost her father at 27. In May 1981, a month after becoming an orphan, Joan was diagnosed with lupus, an auto-immune system disease that eventually required her to take 26 drugs a day, and by the summer of 2010 made her unable to walk.

We'd met a year after her diagnosis. While lupus didn't define or confine our love, the hovering presence of illness in our lives made us akin to a couple who'd met amid war -- alert, engaged, aware that more bombs would fall. Present -- aware we occupied a fault line, to zag towards mortality and zig towards humor.

The morning after she came home from a hospital stay, we slow-danced to The Carpenters' "Rainy Days and Mondays." Funny but it seems I always wind up here with you.

Asked Joan, "Are you saying I have a funny butt?"

4:00 a.m. on August 23, 2010. One day before the 28th anniversary of our first kiss, Joan lay on her back in the intensive care unit of Alta Bates Hospital in Berkeley.

"Sweetie," I said, "I'm worried to death about you."

"Why don't you worry about you?"

Ten days later, she was dead.

Four months later came my chance to answer her question. I was diagnosed with prostate cancer.

But while Joan spent 29 years with a disease where the medical community wandered through fog, my tunnel was crystal-clear. In the schmooze-to-success style that had often done me well, I'd made my way into the University of California at San Francisco. I was in the hands of Dr. Peter Carroll, one of the premier urologists in the land. My cancer was early, small, treatable. Dr. Carroll was "highly confident" I would have "a positive outcome."

Dr. Carroll's genius was his vanguard role in knowing both how to treat and how not to treat. His initial recommendation was "active surveillance," an approach to prostate cancer based on vigilant monitoring, aided quite likely by changes in diet, vitamins and even such stress-reducers as yoga.

Everything was there for me. Everything but a 5'3" brown-eyed brunette. Everything but someone with whom for 28 years I'd shared love and laughter, pain and pleasure. So in that sense, I had nothing. In Joan's absence, it was time to learn more about how to be present.

Oddly enough, a plant-based diet was made easier by solitude. But let me tell you: Food weaves its way into romance. At least it did for me and Joan, from our first lunch to anniversary meals and Friday night pizzas. Leave it to her to see a photo of two hens on a cookbook cover and say, "They look like us."

Asked a colleague, "What foods do you miss most?"

My mind flashed on the sensual simplicity of Joan and I sharing a turkey sandwich in her hospital bed.

"It's not food that I miss."

Yoga was also an effective way to cope with the stress of loss and cancer. Instantly I gravitated towards the process-based focus of the practice -- a pretty good effort, considering I'm a highly competitive tennis player (and one with tight hamstrings).

But it wasn't so much the physical that helped me relish 90 minutes of twisting without talking. There is a whole other aspect to yoga. At the end of my first class, the instructor quoted Herman Hesse: "You know quite well, deep within you, that there is only a single magic, a single power, a single salvation... and that is called loving. Well, then, love your suffering. Do not resist it, do not flee from it. It is your aversion that hurts, nothing else."

Asked a friend, "Are you working on your downward dog?"

"I'm working on being present."

My PSA -- the number from a blood test that's one indicator of cancer's progress -- dropped 40 percent. A followup ultrasound showed nothing. Perhaps I would never require surgery and endure as a sage vegetarian. A year after losing Joan, death, cancer and yoga had taught me this: Suffering can be redemptive.

Active surveillance requires annual biopsies. My PSA had begun to rise. Biopsy number two revealed it was time to take aggressive action.

Now came another lesson in being present. Each morning for five weeks prior to surgery: meditation. Each day: preparation, akin to the way Bill Walsh scripted the San Francisco 49ers' first 15 plays.

Dr. Carroll was true to his word. Followup pathology revealed good signs. My first post-surgery PSA -- a quarterly test -- was, in Dr. Carroll's words, "undetectable."

Easter marks our wedding anniversary. Joan and I chose that day to celebrate the spirit of rebirth. With or without the love of my life, I cling to one word: present.

For more by Joel Drucker, click here.

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