Being grateful extends far beyond a Thanksgiving meal

prostate cancer support group, Bluemen
The Bluemen’s Group and spouses. © Martha Stutzman

By Bruce Stambaugh

The five of us men sat around the breakfast table enjoying the tasty food and each other’s company. As much as I cherished knowing these friends, and the nutritious breakfast, it was the conversation that captured my attention.

Half way through the hour-long gathering, I realized I was smiling, grateful to be included in this forthright discussion about what really matters in life. The hard, direct questions about life and death enthralled me. The frank, honest, heartfelt answers fueled the no-frills banter.

fall sunset, landscape photography, Bruce Stambaugh
November sunset. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
This was a Thursday morning, the usual bi-weekly get-together of our cancer support group, affectionately known as the Bluemen. Blue is the color for prostate cancer, and that was a common denominator of the group, save for one member.

Our host, normally a reserved, contemplative man, was passionately engaged in the meaningful discussion. By early Monday morning, he had died.

When I learned of his death, I wasn’t shocked. Deeply saddened yes, but not surprised given that intense interaction I had witnessed regarding life and preparing to die.

That precious morning, I sat and listened mostly, participating only when absolutely necessary. I was too absorbed to interrupt the flow of the dialogue’s stream.

Our friend, Bill, had joined our cancer support group for just that kind of interaction. This diminutive but gentile giant of a man wanted our companionship in his journey with prostate cancer. We gladly welcomed him.

fall colors, red tree, Bruce Stambaugh
Red tree. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Bill immediately felt at home with us. One of the most humble individuals I had ever met, Bill easily joined in the group’s chitchat. He, like the rest of us, shared intimate details that only those with prostate cancer unashamedly reveal, even over breakfast.

At times, this quiet, simple man talked our ears off. Once he even tried to introduce politics, a violation of our unwritten protocol. We all laughed.

Though not a prostate cancer victim, Kurt joined our group because there are no living members to offer comfort for his kind of cancer. Just like Bill, Kurt held nothing back either.

Our table talk revolved around what it’s like to die, are we afraid to die, what will we miss, what will we look forward to in the afterlife? And so it went, at first monthly, then every other week when Bill had a set back a few months ago.

Bill wanted to continue to meet, so this affable man and his amazing wife invited us into their home. We ate, talked, and laughed some more. Sometimes we even shed a few tears.

barn in snow, Holmes County Ohio, Bruce Stambaugh, landscape photography
Barn in snow. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
Besides cancer, the group members were bound as one by two other mutual traits. Our common faith, and our gratitude for the life opportunities we had had, and would have made us brothers.

We had no idea of what was about to play out with Bill following that marvelous Thursday morning gathering. I was glad for the multitude of thanks expressed then for all that had come our way in life. The good far outweighed the bad, even including cancer.

Each in our close-knit group was appreciative of life, to live, to love, to be loved. That was enough, more than any of us could ever have desired.

The turkey and all the trimmings of Thanksgiving are nice. Our group’s regular sharing affirmed that being grateful means so much more than a holiday spread. The Bluemen were most thankful for the immeasurable joy, love and fellowship of devoted families and friends.

Isn’t that what Thanksgiving is really all about?

snow, black and white photo, snowy woods
Snowy woods. © Bruce Stambaaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Feeling guilty about surviving cancer

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Life sometimes is a foggy ride. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

By Bruce Stambaugh

I wasn’t surprised when I got the word. Three years after my successful prostate cancer surgery, I remained cancer free.

Of course, I was glad, ecstatic really. But after getting the all clear from my doctor, I never celebrate, and I don’t gloat. I know I am one of the fortunate ones. Far too many people diagnosed with cancer never hear those blessed words, “cancer free.”

I had excellent doctors who expertly monitored and guided me through my journey. When it was decided to do the robotic surgery, I hoped and prayed for the best results.

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A sign of promise. © Craig Stambaugh 2014.
Fortunately, my prayers were answered. Those of too many others with cancer have not been, will not be. At times, I feel bad about that, guilty even, sometimes to the point of depression.

I never know when those feelings will arise. I’m not even sure what triggers them. I just know at times I feel really sad for others, and guilty because I made it while others did not.

I recognized that an important first step in fighting this negativity was to personally acknowledge my situation, and seek the appropriate medical and therapeutic help. It’s good to be honest, especially with yourself.

It was also reassuring to learn that my anxiety propensity is fed by a genetic disorder only recently diagnosed. Medicine and diet help balance my emotions. That doesn’t eliminate my remorse, however.

Whenever I share these survivor guilt feelings with others, reactions vary from understanding to bewilderment. Some question the idea entirely, and wonder how in the world I could feel the way I do.

There is no easy answer, just like there is no good cancer. Cancer is cancer. Guilt is guilt, whether it is justified or not. Like so many other survivors, I ask the obvious questions. Why was I saved? Why were others not?

I am not sharing for sympathy. I do so for understanding, not for me so much as for all the others who suffer similarly.

I am not alone in dealing with this survivor’s guilt syndrome. The condition ranges far beyond the circles of cancer victims. Firefighters, military personnel, first responders, victims of violence all hurt likewise.

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A sign of hope. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.
The good news for me, besides being cancer free, is that I try not to let my sporadic despair overwhelm me to the point of hopelessness. I always have hope, and always hope the best for others.

I tell my own story when asked. But I found a pair of other actions far more helpful. Simply being there, and listening to others are both critical to cancer victims, their families and friends, and to survivors, too.

I have found a sincere presence, and kind, active listening beneficial healing approaches to all touched by this horrible disease. Such support encouraged me during my ordeal, and I try to do the same for others in need when and where I can. There seem to be too many opportunities lately.

I greatly appreciated the encouragement given by my loving wife and family. I also belong to a very supportive small group with other cancer survivors and victims. We share openly and honestly with one another, without judgment or shame. We meet regularly to stay in touch with how each of us is doing on our cancer journey.

Still, when that dreaded guilt shows its ugly face, I know what to do. I visit and I listen. Purposeful focusing on the needs of others helps me heal, too.

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Life renewing. © Bruce Stambaugh 2014.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2014

Early detection is critical for prostate cancer

By Bruce Stambaugh

I remember the exact time and place when I got the phone call that said I likely had prostate cancer. A biopsy three months later confirmed the preliminary test.

I wasn’t surprised by the news, but I was disappointed. I had hoped to avoid the disease that was in my family’s medical history. My father died of prostate cancer, and a year and a half before my diagnosis, my older brother had had robotic prostate cancer surgery to remove the cancerous prostate.

With this background, my doctors kept a close watch on my situation. When my Prostate-Specific Antigen (PSA) began to rise, my urology appointments went from annual to semiannual.

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Each September, the lamp in my office shines blue in honor of Prostate Cancer Awareness Month.
The PSA test, which requires a simple blood draw, has been the standard for monitoring a man’s prostate health. September is designated as Prostate Cancer Awareness Month, and having a baseline PSA score is an essential guide for healthcare providers to know their patients’ situations, according to the National Cancer Institute.

“Early detection is important,” said Dr. Timothy Coblentz, a urologist in Canton and a native of Holmes County, Ohio. “Men who are caught early with prostate cancer have very good cure results.”

Dr. Coblentz said the PSA screening is especially important for men ages 55 to 69. He said men with high risk factors of family history and race should also be screened beginning no later than age 40.

“There is no doubt that screening for prostate cancer saves lives,” Dr. Coblentz said. His practice is part of the Canton Urology Group, which hosts a prostate cancer awareness meeting on the second Tuesday of each month.

Luis Lacourt of Massillon, Ohio coordinates the group. He was diagnosed with prostate cancer at age 42, or as he puts it, “About 25 years before the average age of diagnosis.”

Lacourt also had a family history with the disease. His grandfather, father and uncle all had prostate cancer. At the urging of his father, Lacourt asked his family doctor to begin PSA testing to establish a baseline.

At age 40, he began seeing a urologist, who happened to be Dr. Coblentz. When Lacourt’s PSA score doubled in a year, the red flag went up. A biopsy confirmed his prostate cancer in May 2012, and a month later he underwent successful robotic prostate cancer surgery.

Lacourt, now 44, is a guidance counselor at Perry High School in Massillon. He is also an ordained minister.

“I believe that everything happens for a reason,” Lacourt said. “It became clear to me that prostate cancer awareness was something I could share as a positive influence to help others.”

With the assistance of a urology nurse with Dr. Coblentz, Lacourt began the monthly support meeting, which is open to all who have had or currently have prostate cancer. He said the emphasis is on sharing and learning, and recognizing that prostate cancer awareness is important.

Lacourt’s proactivity about prostate cancer began immediately after being diagnosed. He organized a Prostate Cancer Awareness night at a high school football game last October.

Early detection of prostate cancer was critical to me. Knowing the disease was in my family raised my risk of having it. However, my baseline PSA level was much higher than my brother’s. His spiked significantly in one year, the biopsy was done, followed by the surgery.

My PSA went up gradually. When it exceeded the standard threshold of 4, my testing and the exams increased, though I had no symptoms that anything was amiss. On May 12, 2011, I had my robotic prostate cancer surgery, and have fortunately since been declared cancer free.

supportgroupbybrucestambaugh
Having a support group to get through the various stages prostate cancer is important both emotional and physical health.
More than two years post surgery, I am doing very well, partly thanks to a support group of other men who have or are fighting the same fight. Kim Kellogg of Millersburg, Ohio invited me to the group. Kellogg was diagnosed with prostate cancer a year to the day ahead me.

“Having an advocate and being an advocate to others is really important before and after treatment,” Kellogg said. “Stay positive, be vocal, ask questions of the doctors and others who have had prostate cancer.”

Being able to share with a small group of others with prostate cancer has made the physical and emotional recovery from the robotic surgery much easier than trying to go it alone. Our group meets about once a month.

Statistically, one in six men get prostate cancer and 30,000 men die in the United States each year from the disease. Those figures alone drive prostate cancer awareness. Excellent resources about prostate cancer can be found from the Blue Cure Foundation and the One in Six Foundation. Both foundations provide excellent information on prostate cancer prevention, and resources for those diagnosed with prostate cancer and living with the disease.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

The breakfast clubs

heartybreakfastbybrucestambaugh
This hearty breakfast was served at the Friday break held outdoors on the company’s campus.

By Bruce Stambaugh

Who doesn’t love food, fun and fellowship, even if they happen early in the day around the breakfast table?

Studies show that eating breakfast is important to maintain good health. It helps you get your day started right. I’ve discovered that’s true far beyond the nutritional benefits of healthy breakfast foods.

When it comes to breakfast, I am a fortunate person indeed. I don’t mean the quality or quantity of the early morning fare or the sacred times alone with my wife or sharing blueberry pancakes with the grandkids.

I am blessed to be a part of three entirely different, unrelated groups that all happen to meet regularly in charming Mt. Hope, Ohio for breakfast. Sharing around a common meal, including breakfast time, is special. Given the conversations, there is no dozing at these tables.

For several years now, I have been privileged to commune at breakfast every Friday morning at a local business where I serve as a consultant. At least that’s my definition of how and why I keep showing up for Friday morning “break” as the regular employees refer to the gathering. And what a time it is, too.

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My wife always comes up with some delicious dish for breakfast break at Homestead Furniture in Mt. Hope, Ohio. Her latest creation was a tasty fruit crisp.
On a rotating basis, each member of the company’s team, plus me, takes turns bringing breakfast for the 15 or so staff members. The menu is entirely up to the person responsible for hosting the break. The cuisine ranges from sausage gravy on biscuits to homemade sweet rolls to French toast casseroles. Fresh fruit and juice are often provided, too.

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An employee helps herself to some fresh fruit.
Anxious anticipation always seems to precede my turns. They’re not afraid that I’ll forget or even of what I bring because my lovely wife always whips up some tasty breakfast treat. To be honest, I think that’s the only reason they keep me on the list.

You get your own food cafeteria style and come to the giant table surrounded by chairs and benches. Then the fun begins all around, with internal jokes and good natured kidding.

The second group is a gang from church that meets monthly in the town’s restaurant. Dubbed “55 Plus,” the attendees belong to the senior citizen bracket, unless our young pastors make an appearance.

Though I can’t always participate, I love to hear their experiential stories. That age group has a lot to teach us young bucks if we’ll just listen. From time to time, an informative speaker does the sharing.

The other group is the newest and most serious of the three. The straightforward sharing has priority over any food, which is more often than not simply toast and oatmeal. The troop started as a support group for three of us, all prostate cancer survivors. We share the latest concerning our conditions and healing, both physical and emotional.

A fourth prostate cancer cohort joined the group, and then recently, we added two more to the Blue Men’s group, which is what we have labeled ourselves. The title reflects the fact that blue is the color for prostate cancer. One of the newbies is also a prostate cancer survivor. The other is fighting a courageous battle against a more formidable, horrible kind of cancer.

The extraordinary club includes business owners, pastor, engineer, writer and banker. Cancer indiscriminately invades many careers. I admire my friends’ frankness and honesty, their devotion to staying positive and living a servant lifestyle, no matter their profession or personal prognosis.

Friends and food make for fine fellowship. Together they sweetly season even toast and oatmeal with faith and hope.

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My prostate cancer support group added a new member who has a different, rather aggressive kind of cancer.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2013

Celebrating something good out of something bad

Blue men by Bruce Stambaugh
Kim Kellogg, Randy Murray and I meet monthly as a support group following our treatments for prostate cancer.

By Bruce Stambaugh

We were rowdy without realizing it. What would you expect from three baby boomer couples?

About every month I meet with two other long-time friends for breakfast. Besides our age bracket, we all have something very special in common. All three of us are prostate cancer survivors.

Randy is a pastor. Kim co-owns his own business with his wife. Through a crisscrossing, intertwined past, we have known each other for most of our adult lives. It was the cancer, however, that brought us even closer together.

Blue light by Bruce StambaughWe jokingly call ourselves the Blue Men’s group. Blue is the official color for prostate cancer, juxtaposed to pink for breast cancer in women. There’s no joking about either.

We meet at a local restaurant to share. Finding others who have gone through the cancer experience is critical to full recovery, especially emotionally. We are our own support group.

We were all diagnosed within a year of one another. Like so many other cancer patients, we had the same disease in the same location. However, we all had our differences, and each chose, to use the term loosely, a different route for treatment.

Randy had radiation treatments and has stayed cancer-free. Because his cancer had escaped his prostate, Kim’s options were not as simple. He had chemotherapy, radiation and Lupron shots. He has just recently been given better news regarding his long-term recovery, and has good reason for a much more optimistic outlook than he did only a few months ago.

Based on my situation and diagnosis, I chose robotic prostate surgery. I was in the hospital one day and out the next. My PSA tests continue to be immeasurable, just like my compatriots.

We meet to share our progress, and to encourage one another. All three of us are in long-term marriages, and cancer, no matter which kind, affects the spouses, too.

We have been meeting for two years now. Because our spouses are such an integral part of our recovery, we annually do a nice dinner out with the wives. We did so recently, and this time we had even more than our trio of good reports to celebrate.

Happy couple by Bruce Stambaugh
Mr. and Mrs. Stambaugh.
On this particular occasion, we were exulting with Randy’s wife, Amy. Like too many other women, Amy has breast cancer. She just recently completed a lengthy series of challenging radiation treatments. Amy said she was really rejoicing because she now had more hair than I do. That wouldn’t take much.

Her journey isn’t over. But it was a joy to sit around a table and laugh and share instead of worry and dread the unknown. By communing together, we lifted each other’s spirits in a way that none of us could have alone.

My wife and Kim’s needed support, too. As faithful wives, they have had to endure the consequences of both treatment and recovery. They also cared greatly for Amy, with whom they could easily identify.

There is nothing good about cancer. There is no good cancer. There is only cancer.

This night, in this restaurant, gathered with comrades in loving arms and warm hearts, we were as one. Around that dinner table an unspoken common spirit of celebrative unity reigned. Gratitude overcame dread. Communal relief replaced disquieting uncertainty. Laughter was our dessert.

Finally, something good had transformed out of something really bad. We only hoped the restaurant staff and other patrons understood our irrepressible joy.

Amish sunrise by Bruce Stambaugh

This column appeared in The Bargain Hunter, Millersburg, OH.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

One year later, all is well

Biking by Bruce Stambaugh
A year after prostate cancer surgery, I am enjoying regular activities like biking with my family.

By Bruce Stambaugh

A year following my prostate cancer surgery, all is well. It’s hasn’t been a totally uneventful recovery. It certainly could have been worse.

I am extremely glad to be able to say “cancer free.” And yet, I do so with humility, appreciation and the realization that too many people never get to utter those precious words.

Men tend to be pretty squeamish even just thinking about prostate issues, much less talking or writing about them. That’s mainly due to the two unspeakable potential side effects, incontinency and impotency. Because of those two potential consequences, some men unfortunately never return to their doctor once they have been diagnosed with prostate cancer.

Father and sons by Bruce Stambaugh
My older brother, Craig, my late father, Richard, and I all had prostate cancer.
I wasn’t surprised at all when I received the word that I likely had prostate cancer. My older brother had had robotic prostate cancer surgery 18 months before my own diagnosis. Our father had died of the consequences of prostate cancer after a 17-year battle.

It was this family history and the marked vigilance of my good doctors via annual, then semi-annual prostate-specific antigen (PSA) testing that kept the possibility of having prostate cancer at the forefront of my medical exams. I am forever grateful for that watchfulness.

In the months before and after the surgery to remove my cancerous prostate, I received invaluable advice from friends and strangers alike regarding their personal experiences. I also read and researched as much as I could.

Veggie pizza by Bruce Stambaugh
A healthy diet is essential to good health, especially if you have or had cancer. This homemade veggie pizza is both colorful and healthy to eat.
Months after my surgery, a government sponsored panel recommended that regular PSA tests be discontinued as a way to monitor for prostate cancer. That conclusion was based on what was determined to be an overuse of the test and subsequently a high rate of prostate biopsies.

Without either the PSA tests or the conclusive biopsy, I could only guess today whether I had prostate cancer or not. I exhibited no symptoms. When my PSA steadily rose over the course of nearly two years to beyond the danger threshold, I was given a relatively new medical test, called PCA3, that was 90 percent accurate whether it returned negative or positive.

I remember exactly when and where I was when I received the call that my test was positive. It’s the kind of news that one never forgets, like where you were on the morning of September 11, 2001 or December 7, 1941. This was my personal 9/11.

Yet here I am today, alive and well and steadily overcoming the after effects of the surgery. Last November, I had a non-prostate related second surgery that dramatically impeded my recovery. True, left untreated the prostate cancer would not have killed me by now, perhaps never.

Grandchildren by Bruce Stambaugh
This picture was taken just three months after my da Vinci surgery. My wife and I were already traveling with and enjoying the grandchildren.
The biopsy determined that my cancer was the same moderately aggressive type that my brother and father both had. I leaned heavily on my older brother for advice, especially once I decided to move ahead with the robotic surgery, called da Vinci. It’s a surgery that is less invasive, less painful, causes less blood loss, has a quicker recovery than regular radical surgery, and focuses on nerve sparing to lessen the manly issues of being impotent and incontinent. Implanted radioactive seeding or direct radiation were my other options, both with similar long-term side effects that I deemed undesirable.

Through marvelous treatment and care by my doctors, and proper diet and exercise, I have survived. At this point in time, I am ahead of the curve on the two “big” side effects. They are only occasional and manageable inconveniencies. With the cancer out of my body, I don’t ever have to worry about prostate cancer again. No medical test can measure that satisfaction.

I cherish the words “cancer free.” I only wish every cancer victim could say them. Until then, I’ll keep telling my story to whoever will listen. If doing so helps save just one life, it all will have been well worth it no matter what the experts say.

Dewy web by Bruce Stambaugh
Being cancer free, I try to cherish whatever each day brings, even the dew on a spider’s web.

© Bruce Stambaugh 2012

Reflecting on an unhealthy year

January sunrise by Bruce Stambaugh
By Bruce Stambaugh

This hasn’t been the healthiest year of my life. It began in January with bronchitis that turned into pneumonia and has ended with recuperation from a second surgery.

In between, of course, came the confirmation of prostate cancer. I had to endure uncomfortable tests to determine both its presence and infiltration into my body. Fortunately, the cancer was caught early, and removed without major complications.

Helping hands by Bruce Stambaugh
My good wife braved the cold winter elements to fill the bird feeders while I was sick.

I chose the robotic or da Vinci surgery to get rid of the cancer as opposed to the regular radical surgery. The da Vinci was proven to be less intrusive, cause less pain, have less blood loss, be more exact in saving the bundle of nerves that control men’s precious plumbing, and have a quicker recovery.

I was more than glad I went that route. Of course, like anyone else facing surgery, especially surgery for cancer, I ran the full gamut of emotions that ranged from anger to fear to doubt to denial. Still, I wanted that cancer out of my body. My good doctor expertly did just that.
Bluebird by Bruce Stambaugh
After the surgery, I knew I had to behave and follow the instructions religiously. With the aid of my wonderful wife, I did my best to get my life as close to being back to normal as possible.

My recovery was progressing along nicely until I had an unexpected sidetrack, which led to my second surgery. Repairing a hernia certainly isn’t life threatening, but it did set me back considerably in my initial rehabilitation from my May surgery.

Kids and balloons by Bruce Stambaugh
My grandchildren did their best to keep me smiling.

The second surgery was also successful, and once again my recovery has gone well. I still have some lifting limitations that I tried unsuccessfully to get the doctor to extend for six years.

All that being said, I tried to keep my focus on others. Clearly, many, many people in this socially connected world of ours have had or do have it much worse off than me. The last thing I wanted was to feel sorry for myself. But I did. I’m a man. What would you expect?

Mom's birthday by Bruce Stambaugh
My mother celebrated her 90th birthday in June.

My wife made sure my self-pity didn’t last long. Thankful to be alive and alert, I worked around my physical limitations as best I could by trying to focus on the circumstances of others. There are lots of hurting people out there who have it much worse than me. Friends, relatives and even friends of friends are going through unthinkable miseries.

But think of them I must. To be down and out, sick or disabled through some accident or illness is bad enough. To be that way during the approaching holidays makes it all the harder. I try to visit and pray and do whatever I can to help. They did that for me. It’s the least I can do for them.

Three survivors by Bruce Stambaugh
Three prostate cancer survivors, Kim Kellogg, Randy Murray and me.

I greatly appreciated the kindnesses shown to me. I feel obliged to return the favor wherever and whenever I can.

Chances to help unexpectedly present themselves. The key to being helpful is recognizing when those opportunities arise, and responding accordingly.

Being a survivor, I hope I never forget that that’s exactly what I need to do. Respond where and when I can, even if it’s just listening and holding a hand. Having company in times of personal distress is a mighty gift that needs no unwrapping.

This has been an unhealthy year for me. But I’m here. I made it, grateful to be alive and determined to help those in need, even if it is nothing more than offering a smile.
Foggy sunrise by Bruce Stambaugh