Thursday, March 10, 2011

How could you not remember which testicle you have left?

In the seventeen years since 1993, I've not been overtly public about this. My family and some friends know, but many who've known me for years will be surprised. I am a cancer survivor. I do not, and have not lived my life that way, as a survivor. I learned about it, had it cut out, and forgot about it. It is that simple.
There are many things I remember about that particular year in Kansas City. I had just remade myself, new type of job, new city, alone. I liked where I was, had developed some wonderful friendships, met my future wife; but I had brought an old worry with me. Most of 1992 I had wondered if something was wrong with my left testicle. By summer of 1993 there was no doubt. A man's 'boys' should be the same size, roughly equal as twins. I was carrying something close to a small hen's egg on one side.
When the receptionist at the Urologist heard my reason for wanting an appointment, she made one for the very next day. I only had to tell her once, without any follow-up explanation, "I have one testicle larger than the other, and it has no feeling in it."
Kansas City is a beautiful little city. But, it can be a bit difficult to find your way around there. I arrived early to my appointment, expecting to have trouble getting there. They kept me in the waiting room about thirty seconds. No paperwork to fill out, "remove your jeans and lie down on this table". I knew it was the right place to be. I knew that I might have waited too long.
Two doctors came in. The second was an intern. They introduced themselves, told me why the intern was observing, slipped on their gloves, and came to my side. Nothing was said, until the surgeon stopped handling me.
"This isn't good, Son."
Not much of their conversation, then, was directed to me personally. They spoke a lot about my genitals. For five minutes they discussed what they instantly recognized. The intern was being educated while holding my manhood.
"No one referred you. How did you find us?" Dr. Leifer asked.
"I looked in the phone book. I knew I needed a Urologist."
It was very quiet, and they stared at one another.
My mouth was very dry, I remember that well. Dr. Leifer confirmed my worries about it being cancer. He explained that it needed to be removed, in only days. He would perform the surgery; a Radical Orchiectomy. They would remove that testicle, and perhaps the other, once they brought the bad one out into the light. And that was it. I had just been told I had cancer, and one of the forms which killed many men each year, not so very long ago. But, I was in exactly the right place. No bounce between any physicians, no referrals, no tests. A biopsy would have been dangerous. It is what it is...let's remove it - Tuesday.
Not one second of fear.
However, the next hour was not normal. I was terribly agitated by what came next. I sat in a quiet conference room, while the surgeon made the arrangements at his hospital, and his nurse read to me from a handful of pamphlets, about living with, and dying from cancer. In that hour, the remainder of my life was planned. They would remove the cancer, which was actually a normal procedure; no worse than the hernia surgery I had endured years before. But, I might not survive beyond a couple of years, if all the later tests came back with bad news.
Nothing the doctor told me had bothered me. His nurse was making my skin crawl.
I would be in the hospital for 23 hours. They were going to cure me of cancer as an outpatient. A vet could have done it, actually, but there was no real reason to throw the babies out with the one rock. They wanted me strong for what would happen about ten days after the surgery; I needed to be able to walk. Ten days to recover from groin surgery, and the removal of one flawed jewel. Ten days to get all the blood tests back. Ten days to decide if I need radiation, or chemotherapy.
Ten days to learn if I had come in time.
I hardly remember telling family, one or two friends, and my employer. I lived alone, and would need nearly a month of convalescent angel of a friend told me to stop worrying about any of that; I would stay with her.
The morning of the surgery, I met a half-dozen physicians, what seemed nearly twenty nurses. One chaplain. I only signed papers; people became stenographers for me, asking questions, filling out forms. I only signed where told to. I was asked to sign one sheet that gave them permission to contact certain people if I died before waking from anesthesia. Every new person who came into the room asked this identical question, then wrote the answer; "Which side are we removing?"
"Left side."
"Which side are we removing?"
"Left side."
"Which side are we removing?"
"Left side."
When I go to the dentist, I always ask to be put to sleep. There is no - why? - I just love the sensation of drifting off to sleep, then waking a split second later, having lost an hour. I would lose about two hours, they said, this time. One of the nurses commented that she had never had a patient so relaxed during prep. I get that comment a lot, because I love being put under. It spooks some people. But, I figure, I already knew the worst thing I could know. Why be afraid of the cure? So, I chatted, answered the questions, asked a few of my own, and then began to count as the anesthesiologist requested. I was tasting the IV when the surgeon came in, asked if I was counting...
"28 - 2  9 - 3    0    "
"Ok. Let's get ready on the right side."
I was awake for only part of the next 18 plus hours. My room was not private and more than one nurse apologized to me in whispers when I was awake. I shared that room with someone who lay dying; beyond the help of even morphine. That poor soul only responded in moans to the nurses and doctors, and refused to acknowledge any of the relatives who came in; who begged him to let go - and go home to Jesus. I think I cried about it more than his family did. He was not there when I woke the next morning, and I didn't ask any questions. I wanted to believe he was free.
This was the week of Thanksgiving, 1993. Everyone said I would prefer radiation. On December 7, I began 15 days of treatment.  Just two days before, they began the process of making the shaped, lead shields which would protect my vital organs during the treatment. I was tattooed next to my navel, to help aim the beams. Nearly a foot thick block of lead was sculpted to match my innards; one shield for the front of me, one for the back. I would be irradiated from my upper thigh to my collar bone. An uncomfortable, hollow, clam-shaped lead ball rested around my half empty scrotum. The nurse who positioned it every day would laugh that I must not have liked her....prep took nearly an hour those fifteen mornings. That ball would pinch sometimes, and she would come back to do some wiggling.
Ten in the morning, the radiation would begin. I could feel the machine kick on, like a warm breath on my skin. I didn't move. An automobile-sized gun fired X-rays at me and turned like a half-opened hand, above, then below me, around my motionless platform. Half an hour later, they would help me up to let me dress. For two days, I believed that I could handle anything.
On the third day the nausea began, at precisely two in the afternoon. They never found a medication which eased the nausea. I would scream into the toilet until half past two, and then hobble back out to the couch to lie down and shiver from the shock. Every day for twelve days. I was not sick on the 16th day, but had been warned the nausea could continue for weeks. It didn't.
I had come in time. My left testicle was dead. Stage 1, but 100% cancerous. It wasn't even sent to the lab. In perhaps a month, or two, it would have broadcast its poison to my lymphatic system. It wanted to kill me. My right testicle was healthy, a tremendous surprise, but they would do a year’s worth of blood tests to be certain. The radiation was actually preventative; deemed a complete success in half a year. I had beaten many, many odds, to hear those reports. But, I had the lowest sperm count that was even practical to count, only hundreds of healthy little rascals. After all the protection, I must have been affected; it might have been temporary, but I was advised to not hold out any hope of being a father. There is always adoption.
And, I put all that holiday experience away in my mind - as best I could. I didn't do anything that most people advise...I didn’t' live a single day afterwards as a 'victim'. I didn't throw a single prayer to Heaven; something which would put my dear Mother aghast with disbelief. Cancer was my victim. I didn't fight - it had no chance. I got on with stuff. I'm a bit bothered to think my survival is heroic, or a victory of any sort. I only refused to believe cancer would kill me.
But, the experience altered me; that cannot be denied. Hearing the word cancer did not really change me. Lying that one terrible night in that hospital room - that pulled many foundations apart within me. I believe some evidence is in my writing. My characters confront themselves, confront some change they did not expect, and they may never be the same at all. I'm fascinated by such questions; what will I chose to be next? What do I really believe? So, my characters are harshly played things. Some, I try to break; one was even castrated. That seems so funny to me now, I promise that my experience never crossed my mind as I wrote that scene. But, I make my characters face uncertainty. It is for them to sort out, if they can.
Now, happily married to that future wife from KC, with two monstrous little boys, I realize that seventeen years are lived, after learning I might die, after facing my uncertainty. Miles came in 1998, and Colin in 2000; I have one very healthy nut after all. I love the thought of perhaps a daughter, to round out the boys, but Andrea gives me that 'special' look when I bring it up. I'm too old she says, and she doesn't want two of us in diapers at the same time.
Because of my books, there may be a thousand people who know my name today, who did not, even a year ago. It is very easy to know and have some interaction with that many people - something only politicians and movies stars could do when I was my sons' age. Some very dear, and some new friends are battling news, or consequences similar to my experience that month in 1993. On occasion, I see a message, in text, on my computer screen,
"Well, guess what I learned today...."
I know what you learned. I've heard the words.
Do not give away one second to fear.


  1. Wow. Your story, Joel, is both touching and inspiring. I love how you handled your diagnosis. I have some health issues of my own and I know that dwelling and wallowing do us no good. Deal with it and move on as best we can. You've done that better than most.

    I think all of our experiences shape us and also shape our writing. How we handle these things, both internally and externally, spill out with our words on paper. We're mostly not aware but there it is.

  2. Hi dear friend, I recognize a lot in your story. I was hardly affraid too after hearing the news that I had breastcancer. BEFORE I was often affraid, what if......but when I finally got it I thought something like, well now it is my turn, I have to let it go, docters will do their best for me and I cann't do anything about it but just being positive as I can.....and see what happend.: I'm still here after 7½ years and full of life! Thanks for sharing this whole story Joel! I'm glad to be one of your friends! hugs Irma

  3. Learned one hell of a lot about you, Joel...

    What with all the writers I communicate with, now that I'm into promo-mode, and with all the blog posts I'm writing, I could believe this post was an extremely well-crafted piece of fiction.

    But then, I'm known for thinking all of life is a fiction...

    I believe your story; I've learned from it; I will call it True.


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