When my husband came home from the doctor with the news that he needed a biopsy to rule out prostate cancer, I was instantly worried. Not about the test coming back positive, rather about him becoming a basket case, obsessed with fear that he might have cancer. I couldn't wait until he got the happy call and we could return to our normal lives.
I even minimized his concerns, "People get biopsies all the time and they usually come back negative. Besides, only old guys get prostate cancer."
Turned out, I was wrong.
Not only was the biopsy incredibly painful (in fact, more so than any treatment to follow), the results were not the negative ones I had so confidently predicted.
When the doctor uttered the "c" word, I was in more shock than my husband. He had already accepted his fate. I, on the other hand, was dumbfounded and even suspicious, like the time my dentist told me I needed a crown right after he boasted about purchasing a new boat.
The doctor described the different types and stages of prostate cancers and how it's not just one cancerous tumor, but actually a cluster of tumors. He went over treatment options and emphasized that prostate cancer was unusual in that it could essentially be "cured" by removing the prostate gland entirely with surgery.
I turned to my husband, expecting to see a shared look of relief, but there was none. Apparently, after the word, "cancer," he had completely tuned out.
I understood that learning one has cancer is shocking news, but with this cancer and his particular case, it was totally treatable. Sure, the prostate gland, located just north of the penis, is in a pretty sensitive area and the surgery would result in some pain, but my husband was in good shape and would likely heal quickly, I figured.
What I wasn't grasping at the time was just how fond men are of their penises. The very thought of something sharp coming close to it or the idea that something might interfere in any way with the way it functions, is to most men, terrifying.
But I didn't get that then. I honestly believed that all he needed was a day or two to realize that this cloud had a great silver lining. Yes, he had cancer, but he would be fine. I was sure that my positive approach could eventually snap him out of it.
As he started to drive out of the parking structure I could tell he was looking for the exit. "It's over there," I said.
"Really? Are you sure?" he barked. "Because you were pretty sure my test would be negative and look how that turned out!"
Okay, clearly he needed more time.
After breaking the news to friends and family, my husband realized he was not alone. Everyone seemed to have a a relative who recently had prostate cancer. My dad had had it. His dad had had it. John Kerry, Joe Torre and Robert DeNiro had it. Fortunately, all the stories ended well.
We quickly became prostate cancer experts. I assumed that the more we knew and the more stories he heard with positive outcomes, my husband's fears would be assuaged. I wouldn't allow him to dwell on the negatives or worry. If he did, I'd quickly swoop in with an uplifting stat like that the fifteen year survival rate can be as high as 92%.
Finally the day of my husband's surgery came. We joined the somber looking people in the lobby of the cancer hospital. I was determined to not let the sadness in. I remained detached, and continued to be the optimistic cheerleader for my husband, even though he had made it pretty clear that my sunny outlook was really getting on his nerves.
Once inside the pre-op area, my husband already in his gown, I prattled away to distract him from the situation at hand, "You know what a great fundraiser would be for this hospital? They could sell t-shirts that say, 'My Husband Had Cancer And All I Got Was This Stupid T-Shirt.' Wouldn't that be so great?"
By this point my husband was longing for the appearance of the anesthesiologist and the merciful silence the surgery would provide.
The nurses started to wheel away his gurney, but then the anesthesiologist stopped and yelled, "Wife, wait! Take his glasses."
I walked outside and found a seat alone on a nearby bench. I realized my hand was still tightly clinched. I opened it and discovered my husband's glasses in my palm.
I flashed on a memory of my parents, coming home from the veterinarian after they had to put down our elderly dog, Sandy, still holding her collar in hand.
It was only then, as I stared at the glasses, that it hit me.
Oh crap, my husband has cancer.
I cycled through a torrent of horrible "What ifs," the ones my husband had already thought of a million times, the ones I had refused to let him discuss.
I had been so busy trying to distract him and keep him thinking positively, that I hadn't allowed myself to really consider the situation. Now that I finally did, I realized, it sucked.
But there was something else, something more important. Since that day in the doctor's office when my husband and I first learned he had prostate cancer, I had sucked.
Instead of letting him talk about his fears, I steamrolled right over them. I treated him like I did my kids when they got a skinned knee, by trying to distract with silliness or jokes. But, he didn't need distractions and he didn't need me to remind him of encouraging statistics every time he brought up a concern. What he needed was for me to just listen.
Finally, the call came from the surgeon. All had gone well and the cancerous tumors were now gone. The preliminary lab results had come back and his cancer was upgraded, to one that was more aggressive. It was more serious than we both had thought.
The next morning, only one day after surgery, the nurse came in and announced that he needed to start moving. He glanced out his door and saw a virtual parade of elderly gray haired men briskly walking down the hallway, holding their IV trees and wives for support, posteriors exposed through their loosely tied hospital gowns.
"I gotta get out there!" my husband announced, practically leaping out of his hospital bed. "I can't let those old guys show me up." Clearly his competitive instinct was still in tact.
Though he winced in pain, he seemed happier than he had in months. The surgery had removed the alien invaders. It was up to him to recover now.
Over the following year there were good and bad days dealing with the two dreaded "I's," impotence and incontinence, which were also worse than the "Pollyanna" me had predicted. Occasionally I'd try to lift his spirits, but mostly I recalled my revelation on the bench and tried to keep quiet and listen.
Fortunately, in the five years since, he's remained cancer-free and has been able to fully return to his previous energetic lifestyle.
I still think the hospital could make a mint selling those t-shirts.