Being Well Having Cancer
by Raymond Wlodkowski
July 28th, 2020
Although it’s been six years since my initial diagnosis, I often forget I have cancer. However, I’m a psychologist, and recognizing my own rationalizations is a healthy sensibility to keep in mind.
Cancer, the word, I often see people blink when it comes up, no matter who says it. I seldom say, “I have cancer.” It’s much easier to say, “I have an appointment with my oncologist. Things are going pretty well,” and move on from there. Yet, I don’t want to feel guilty or hidden about having this disease. There’s so much more freedom for understanding when people are politely open about it. It’s a vulnerability that doesn’t need drama.
The real symptom that brought me in was erectile dysfunction. A lab test revealed my prostate specific antigen (PSA) count was 184, more than 40 times above the high point of the normal range, a serious sign of prostate cancer. Then came the biopsy.
The urologist was an expert in motivation. He told me what he was doing every step of the way. He knew how to make sure there was an end in sight for every part of the procedure. He said he would call me as soon as the results came in. He called me twice on a Friday night. I wasn’t home. He didn’t leave a message.
When we finally talked, I heard words only written for terrible B films.
“Without treatment, you probably won’t have much longer than six months to live. With immediate treatment, there are a lot of better possibilities.” I chose the latter.
I started with chemo. It’s a familiar story: months of fatigue, nausea, and complete hair loss—bald as a bumper on a 1986 Buick—no eyebrows, no eyelashes, and legs as shiny as lightsabers in a Star Wars film.
Because cancer is in my bones, I have been cautioned not to lift something weighing more than twenty pounds. Mindful fact: If you don’t lift anything weighing more than twenty pounds, eventually you can’t lift anything weighing more than twenty pounds. A small task like changing kitty litter can become a challenge.
About midway through my first round of chemo treatments, my wife, Margery, had a gorgeous idea. “Let’s make every Friday Birthday Night and go out for dinner to celebrate. You’ll reach a hundred and we’ll enjoy free desserts as never before.” It worked. We had something to look forward to, every Friday for 30 weeks. Chicago is a great place to find that kind of gladness. The restaurants want you to have fun. Everyone is in a good mood. It didn’t get old. I think that was the first real lesson of this experience. Stay creative, make joy happen. Celebrate in the face of despair.
Then came radiation. I always wanted a tattoo, even if it were only a dot. But I wasn’t comfortable with how necessary these treatments were. After a discussion with my oncologist, we stopped them. I think that’s the second lesson: always, always, and always speak up. Doctors can be fine experts who need feedback to correct course.
After about a year and a half of chemo, Lupron injections, and various medications, we were able to contain the cancer’s growth. I am in a life now measured in vital months rather than hapless years. Having cancer has put me up close and personal with mortality. This realization is not as grim as my pre-cancer mind thought it would be. I have been able to live vitally to 76. I believe whatever the outcome, there will be peace ahead. I thank Atul Gawande for framing this insight for me in his extraordinary book Being Mortal.
Regarding time, I think my tendency is to live in the present with a nod to the near future. However, cancer does influence the way I live. Blending its impact with my knowledge of motivation, these are the polestars, the personal understandings that center my attention and attraction in life now:
I am more careful. I am more wary of injury and illness. With cancer in my bones, I can’t afford to break one. Recovery from an injury is less certain, and a longer recuperation with possible effects that might catalyze the disease are probable. In short, I watch my step.
I am more likely to savor my experiences. I stay in touch with my friends. I feel a deeper joy when I spend time with my stepsons, even for something as casual as watching a football game on TV. However, I don’t have a bucket list. I think that’s a genuflection to fortune’s favor toward the rest of my life.
I attend a weekly wellness group. I have done so since chemo ended. I will continue to be a part of this group as long as I can. It’s a place I can be totally honest about how I’m feeling physically and emotionally. Every one of us has cancer and every one of us knows we need a place to be vulnerable, open, and not afraid of sounding dependent or weak. We problem-solve our challenges, not always successfully but always with dignity. It’s one of the most honest and forthright groups I’ve ever been a part of. Everyone can say what’s going on with their treatment, what has helped them during challenging times, how they’re doing in the moment, and share where possible pitfalls may emerge. Our leader, Janet, sets a tone that is practical, humane, and kind in ways that I want to continue to learn. That’s one of the benefits I didn’t realize I’d have—emotional learning—ways to deepen my empathy and generosity for those near to my experience with cancer. Because of this group, care of Gilda’s Club, Chicago, I do not have to rely as much on my family for support. I know every week I have a place and a time when I can ask any question I have and address any doubt I hold in the company of people I trust.
I find writing something with a creative narrative to be of immense value. Storytelling, from memoir to fiction to live lit, is now what I do. I believe this is my chance at an advanced age to share something approaching discovery and meaning. I write every day. My most recently published book came down the chute when I was 75. With internet and email, I easily connect with my writing group and the fullness of their friendship and talent. Writing makes each day a worthwhile endeavor.
I savor spending more time with my wife. With both of us retired, it’s a bit like camping in a comfortable cabin. Smaller things like cleaning and cooking get more discussion. Politics and newsworthy events are daily grist. The care, feeding, and responses of our cats, Bernie and Berta, receive our devoted attention. We are not without disagreement. Yet we have love and a friendship with a wisp of an extended vacation in the air.
I ride my bike. It’s one of my greatest outdoor pleasures for this time of my life, the bite of winter and the snap of summer—coasting along with moments of gliding no-hands down a gentle slope—my high risk, septuagenarian thrill. I was a paperboy in Detroit, folding, flinging, and flying down side streets to finish a 75 customer route in 45 minutes every day. It’s in my blood and my muscle memory says I’m 15 years old when I roll.
Our home is where my life happens most. Full and real and easy, it is the absolute core of my wellness. I’m astounded by how such a place works. Now, at its most bountiful, it is the place most alive and soulful to me, where Margery—its spirit and flesh—and my family and friends, whenever they want, belong.
Raymond Wlodkowski is a psychologist whose professional work for the last thirty years has focused on adult motivation and learning. Dr. Wlodkowski lives in Chicago. His most recent book is the memoir Living a Motivated Life (Brill/Sense, 2019). He has been the recipient of the Cyril O. Houle Award for Outstanding Literature in Adult Education.