This is one of several essays from my private cancer journal. It is not intended as anything than a record of my states of mind as I struggled with the disease and the effects of the treatment.
Notes From That Wilder Shore:
Fear & Prostate Cancer
July 3, 2001
In the 17 or so months that I've been on prostate cancer mailing lists and going to my support group, I've seen a lot of fear in men about their condition. At the group,
it is even closer. I find it not merely in their words but in their eyes, their faces
and the way they sat, rubbed their hands and talked.
And then maybe six or eight months ago, I began to wonder why they were so afraid. I was also puzzled by my curiosity. After all, cancer is a killer disease. It destroys lives and families. Shouldn't it be feared? So I knew I couldn't voice the question. I would be considered insensitive, even though I have terminal cancer. But since I didn't understand my puzzlement, I didn't know what to ask so I was left to chew on it, month after month.
In the process, I began to listen more closely to statements by men who were newly diagnosed, trying to find what it was that was striking me as odd. I also read list mail more closely, hoping to find some clue to help me.
The two most obvious reasons for fear were death and the side effects of treatments. I certainly knew the latter. It had driven me out the bottom to the point that I wanted to die. The notion of death itself had also hit me but not as badly as the loss of my identity as a man. But neither resolved the nagging feeling that I was experiencing. I kept thinking there was something else that I kept sensing in the terror that so many men kept expressing; something more than just fear of death and side-effects; something that was wrong about their fear itself.
And it was only regarding the men. I didn't have the same feeling about their companions, the ones who feared losing a loved one. Their expressions of worry, anxiety and/or fear somehow fit their role.
But something was out of whack with the emotion of the men and it nagged at me. I felt like when one tries to remember a particular dream. You know it is there but you can't get your wits around it.
Then I discovered Anatole Broyard and his book Intoxicated With My Illness. It captivated and inspired me more than anything I had read in decades. When I sat down to write about it - more to try to find, articulate and thereby grasp the idea - I found myself intoxicated (to borrow his word) with the phrase, "That Wilder Shore," and sought to express it. When I was done, I spent hours prowling the Web for an illustration that would capture what I felt, finally settling on one depicting dark cliffs and a stormy sea. In the essay, I unknowingly touched on my problem. I asked towards the end if people are afraid of being alive with their disease? It wasn't until weeks later did I realize that I really meant to ask, why are so many men so afraid of "that wilder shore"? Why don't others see it as an adventure?
That was when I began to have an answer that worked for me, when I began to ask the right question(s). This is my first real try to articulate it, so consider it a first draft.
We now accept (to put it in overly simple terms) that men have carried battle in their genes for eons, just as women carry nurturing. Good or bad, it fell to men to hunt with weapons that were insufficient and so we had to rely on skill. It was our task to defend the family or the tribe from wild animals or other tribes. When called upon and for whatever reason, we waged war on others. And a common thread throughout is danger. We could be permanently maimed or killed but it was our responsibility, our duty, our "job." Our hearts may have been in our mouths or we might have thrilled at the hunt or the battle, but it was done always with the knowledge that there could be injury or death. That brought no dishonor. Most cultures promised a favored place for the stricken warrior and honors for those who won and lived. Some would be immortalized in song and story, told around fires to the youth, to inspire them for the role that awaited.
But somewhere at some time, that began to wane. Battle became ugly, rather than honorable. Hunting went to men who brought game to the shop to be sold. Defense of the home and family went to others to whom we gave the authority to capture and try the offenders. And the stories of male bravery and achievements were taken over and told by authors who were paid for their tales.
And so men relegated their masculinity to organizations and symbols. Even in war, where heroics could still be sung, the glory faded. People relied on professional story-tellers whose success was measured not by the myth that inspired but the awards and their income and, finally, stories about them, rather than the men.
Masculinity became measured by new social standards. No longer was it a scalp or a weapon torn from the hands of their enemy or the lifeless head of an animal that could have killed them, carried to the camp in victory. In the final degradation, the trophy became some corporate product that they could buy or wear or display as a symbol that they were truly men.
The price was that real, mortal danger to their life or future was not from another warrior who was also placing his honor at stake. It was from the stock market, a corporate decision, a bank, a school that wouldn't accept his kid and, finally, his ability to cite and chant the new liturgy of masculinity: carburetor settings, batting averages or interest rates.
And then from nowhere, a new enemy appeared: prostate cancer.
Knowledge of carburetor settings, batting averages and interest rates hadn't prepared him for this.
And so he was afraid. He was very afraid.
And that was what I had sensed in the men who were frightened. It was what I had heard in their voices and seen in their faces. They had met an enemy that could kill them and they had forgotten what to do.
They were like city dwellers thrown into the wilderness and told to survive. Where was the high-tech tent, the freeze-dried food and the down-filled sleeping bag? Where was their cell phone, TV remote and financial advisor?
Where was their Hyatt Hotel?
Adventure and danger had become what they watched in Bruce Willis movies, the two-minute drill of professional (American) football and the closing stock report. Danger became packaged, sterilized and easy to microwave, rather than what they lived. Stories of adventure and daring - from those learned in school to those they consumed with a remote - proved to be a diet without nutrition.
They suddenly faced the actual mortality of their lives and they didn't know what to do because they had forgotten.
That was the terror I heard in their voices. It wasn't death or even the side effects. It was that they had forgotten what to do to such a degree that they forgot that they forgot.
And so the fear took them over and appeared in their eyes and their voices as they pleaded, what do I do now? Please, they begged, someone tell me what to do!
That is what I saw and heard, men who had already been emasculated by years of culture that had misinformed them of what it means to be a man.
They had forgotten what to do.
This is a harsh and unjust view, many will say. I don't disagree it is harsh. But I think it applies to a LOT of men who are paralyzed with fear after diagnosis.
I'm not saying that a diagnosis is easy. Meeting an enemy who can kill you is never easy. It is what you do next that measures you as a man. Do you turn to someone else and ask what you should do or do you take command? Do you get up off the floor where you were just dropped or do you whine and plead for someone to make the decision for you?
Am I brutal? Yes. Am I unforgiving? No. We men have inherited a role that was not fully our choice. Most of us were born into criteria passed to us by others, as stories were once told around the fire.
But now it is time to recognize that we were betrayed. It wasn't from malice or evil nor fully from our own stupidity. It was simply a mistake and generation after generation accepted it without a thought and passed it to the next in the full belief that this was right. So let's not blame those who came before us. Just realize that we now find ourselves adrift and decide to take command, if only for those who follow.
A couple of decades ago, men became a target for the woes of the world. It was because of us, many wrote, that the world has gone wrong with centuries of wars and competition and a male-dominated society.
Pardon my French, but bullshit.
Whatever may be wrong with the world, it is not because of the men.
Nor is the answer a male-dominated society. That is not my point. I am talking to men with prostate cancer who find themselves terrified beyond anything they could have imagined.
It is my contention that you have to dig down into the primal male psyche - without regard for opinions expressed about men - and contact something that may have been lost even before you were born but, I contend, is still there.
It is called many things or described in many ways: taking control, taking command, being in charge, making decisions, being a warrior, being in control, etc., but it all comes down to being a man and recognizing that the worst that can happen is NOT that you die or are injured.
The worst that can happen is that you let this disease and everyone else take control of your life as a man.
There is nothing wrong in seeking the advice of others. You're in a new land with a new language and rules and there is no better way to learn than from the inhabitants or those who came before you.
There is also nothing wrong with breaking down and crying.
Look at this photograph.
It was taken in Korea in 1950, a few months after the conflict started. The grieving man just lost his best buddy in a fire fight. The man on the left is a corpsman, filling out death certificates.
Sometimes anguish is needed and no one knows it better than another who shares the battlefield.
In the end, it is not what you do in a moment of pain or despair that measures you as a man.
It is what you do next.
Am I being narrow-minded, harsh and opinionated?
Because I think that is what is needed to help some overcome not decades of emasculation but centuries.
Does this apply to all men?
Will it work with all men?
Then why am I preaching it?
Because I think there are some men out there who cannot be reached in any other way, whose lives will be wasted because they mistakenly relied on a cultural error when it came to being a man.
Prostate cancer offers some of us the chance to correct that error and to become the men we thought we were, regardless of the outcome of the disease and the treatments.
Prostate cancer offers us a chance to be men again, to bring home the spoils of victory or die in the effort, to tell the embellished stories around the campfire or to be the subject of those tales so that the others to follow know what it is like to be a man.