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A Poet On Coping With Her Husband’s Prostate Cancer In Midlife

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Terri Kirby Erickson was one of the first guest contributors to as she turned 50 and began to see success with her first book of poetry! Terri Kirby Erickson is the award-winning author of three books of poetry, including her latest collection, In the Palms of Angels (Press 53). She and her husband live in North Carolina. Terri shares with us once again as she relates the challenge of dealing with a life-changing event…

Just about the time my new collection of poetry was released this past April, my husband—the boy I’ve had a crush on since I was fourteen—was diagnosed with prostate cancer. There were no symptoms whatsoever. In fact, he wouldn’t have gone to the doctor at all if I hadn’t insisted he was way past due for a physical.

Mostly I was concerned about his cholesterol. My husband’s idea of a good meal is a steak so rare it says “Moo!” when you cut into it, and a vat of sour cream with a baked potato hidden somewhere inside.

And yes, his cholesterol was a little high, but so was his PSA (prostate specific antigen), a protein found in elevated levels in men who have prostate cancer. Unfortunately, this simple blood test isn’t always reliable. The result can be influenced by a number of factors including infections, a benign enlarged prostate and sexual activity—so a higher-than-normal PSA doesn’t necessarily mean that a man has cancer.

Still, it was scary. My husband’s late father, once a water polo player for Sweden in the 1948 London Olympics, had prostate cancer. But it was later in life and it didn’t kill him. My father-in-law lived to be 84, in fact, and was able to swim laps in the pool like a teenager until a few years before he died.

So my husband decided to wait a couple of months and have another PSA test. Again, the number was elevated. His doctor advised him to have a prostate biopsy, which after studying the details via the Internet, he declined to do. After reading about the procedure, myself, I didn’t blame him. It sounded grueling and after all, his PSA level wasn’t that high compared to how high it can get. And he had no symptoms.

“I’ll give it a few months and have one more test,” he said. “If it’s higher, I’ll get the biopsy.” So we waited and it was. This time, however, the doctor could also feel something irregular on the prostate itself.

The biopsy, performed by a local urologist, wasn’t as bad as he expected, but it was “no day at the golf course,” either. Afterward, there was bleeding and pain. And it took more than a week to get the results.

Ironically, my husband called to give me the news as I was leaving the Derrick L. Davis Forsyth Regional Cancer Center in North Carolina, where I am a volunteer.

I opened my car door and sat down just as he said, “The test was positive.” For a minute there, I thought it was good news. It’s tough to associate the word “positive” with a cancer diagnosis. Then it hit me. My husband has cancer.

We knew, of course, that prostate cancer is usually slow-growing and that most men who have it don’t die from it. But there is no getting around the fear that comes when you or someone you love is diagnosed with cancer.

We immediately scheduled a meeting with the urologist to discuss our options, and tried our best to carry on with our normal lives. We worked, went for walks, did the grocery shopping, etc., and at my husband’s request, didn’t discuss “it.” He is not big on sharing his feelings even with me, his best buddy. And there was no use, he said, “getting worked up” until we knew more.

When we did find out more it wasn’t the worst news, but it also wasn’t the best. The cancer is in an intermediate stage, so the suggested treatments are surgery or radiation. After doing a lot of research and talking with medically qualified friends, we chose nerve-preserving robotic prostatectomy surgery, which is scheduled for early summer.

In the meantime, we wait yet again—something we probably shouldn’t have done earlier in this process. In fact, I now believe that every guy with a family history of prostate cancer, urinary symptoms or past the age of 50 (even 40, some doctors say), should get a prostate exam and a PSA test.

While men can have an elevated PSA for any number of reasons, when cancer is one of the possibilities, better safe than sorry isn’t just a cliché.

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