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

In praise of bathrooms and healing

By Bruce Stambaugh

I normally don’t write about politics. I try to keep my news on the bright side.

That said, I had a lot of time to fill while recuperating from my recent surgery to remove my cancerous prostate. I listened to the radio, watched television, reflected on life’s really important matters, and appreciated the kindness and generosity of family, friends, neighbors, churches, businesses, organizations and even strangers.

Their cards, visits, well wishes, prayers, flowers and food all rather overwhelmed me. I found it humbling and heartwarming to be told that so many people in so many ways love you.

The post-surgery visit to the doctor was positive, although we will have to wait a month for the results of my next PSA test to be able to say that I am “cancer free.” All things considered, I am very upbeat about my progress so far.

That brings me back to the beginning. While recuperating, I was astonished to already hear so many detailed reports on who might be running for the opportunity to oppose our current president in the 2012 election.

That’s right. Next year’s presidential election was commanding headline media time and it’s only Spring 2011. It was enough to make you nauseous, more so than the pain medication did for me.

The recovery process required that I also listen to my body. Much of that dualistic listening took place in the bathroom, which may be the perfect spot to have to endure premature political discourse.

Even without having had surgery, I’ll confess that I have always loved both bathrooms and politics. In today’s age of sound bite mania, it’s hard to tell the two apart.

In being sensitive to what my body was telling me as it slowly healed, I had to carefully respond appropriately. After they mess with your plumbing, believe me, you don’t want to stray too far from the water closet.

But then, I already had that reputation. As a kid, I got ribbed about using the bathroom so much. I tried not to let it bother me. I knew my business better than others, so to speak, and I learned early on to make sure I took care of business as needed.

Honduran outhouse by Bruce Stambaugh
An outhouse in rural western Honduras.

I used to say that I never saw a bathroom I didn’t like, until I went to Honduras. And even then, I learned the valuable necessity of compromise. As I matured, which is still being debated, medical tests proved what I already knew. Bathrooms were my best friends.

When I go to meetings, I always sit on an end chair just in case. In junior high school, I had a permanent hall pass. I made NASCAR pit stops seem inconsequential.

Minutes, hours, days and now weeks after my delicate, nerve-sparing robotic prostate surgery, I have learned that spending quality time in bathrooms is both a necessity and a positive sign of healing. In that unmentionable course of action, I have learned that patience is definitely a virtue.

I am looking forward to the continued healing and to hopefully hearing the words “cancer free” at my next doctor’s appointment. About 218,000 men in the United States are diagnosed each year with prostate cancer and more than 35,000 die from it annually. (See BlueCure.com for more information.)

Given those statistics, I absolutely feel fortunate to be able to share, even if it is about bathrooms. Premature presidential politics, on the other hand, is another matter.

My journey with cancer so far

By Bruce Stambaugh

On the morning of Dec. 14, 2010 I got the call I had dreaded. My preliminary test for prostate cancer was positive. A follow up biopsy confirmed the results. My journey with cancer had begun.

My immediate reaction was more of disappointment than surprise. My father had died of prostate cancer, and my older brother had had his cancerous prostate removed a year and a half earlier.

I saw the miseries my father had been through, and I knew what inconveniences my brother dealt with. Still, it was that immediate family history that resulted in my early diagnosis, for which I was most thankful. My doctors tested my PSA level twice a year.

Nevertheless, my initial emotions resembled the steepest, most winding roller coaster at any amusement park. Only, this turn of events wasn’t amusing. It was sad, frustrating, discouraging, lonesome, unacceptable, and agonizing all rolled into one.

At the same time, I knew that with the early diagnosis that I likely would have many more options than other cancer patients with much worse prognosis. And yet, this cancer was in my body and I was not happy about it.

I had been close to cancer before. Besides my father and my older brother, other close relatives and friends had had cancer. Too many acquaintances, former students and friends have either had cancer, are currently in their own battle with cancer, or have died because of it.

Each of their experiences touched me. Still, when the doctor tells you that you have cancer, everything changes.

Yes, it had been detected early. Yes, it likely could be removed or radiated. But it was still cancer. There is no good cancer. Cancer is cancer. Any action to counter the disgusting disease had the potential for unwelcome and unwanted physical, mental and emotional consequences.

Even so, I have found both friends and renewed friendships so far along this rocky path. I have been proactive in asking questions, and others have reached out to me.

Blues Brothers by Bruce Stambaugh
Kim Kellogg, Millersburg, OH, Randy Murray, Orrville, OH and I have formed our own prostate cancer support group. We meet about once a month at a local restaurant.

I meet periodically with two friends, both also in the midst of dealing with prostate cancer. Hearing their stories helps me to understand that each situation is different, and requires decisions that are best for each individual. The road to being cured from prostate cancer is different for every patient. Indeed, for some, there is no cure.

My route took me to a new urologist who laid out the best options for me, naming one by one the potential side effects, both short and long-term. None of them were pretty, including incontinency and impotency.

I have chosen robotic surgery as the best way to deal with my cancer. It is the least invasive, least painful, has the least blood loss, and the quickest recovery time, assuming all goes well. Plus, the surgery will remove the cancer from my body.

My particular prognosis for recovery is good, much better than hundreds of thousands of other cancer patients. I don’t find much solace in that, however.

Statistics show that one in six men get prostate cancer, and some of them are as young as 30. Early detection through testing is paramount, especially with a family history of the disease.

Others who have been down this road ahead of me say it’s important to maintain a positive attitude. That is how I am approaching my surgery. With supportive friends and family, I am comforted knowing that I do not have to walk this journey with prostate cancer alone.

Footnote: I especially appreciate the information and support received so far from Gabe Canales and his Blue Cure Foundation, along with all the good folks who post on Gabe’s Journey with Prostate Cancer Facebook page.