When I was diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer in 2002, I swallowed hard as my urologist explained my rather limited options. I felt emptied of incentive, devoid of purpose. I just wanted to be rid of the tumor.
Within weeks, I underwent surgery and began my long recovery. I had no idea what I was getting into and sought no help in coping.
Being an old school male, I just toughed it out.
My silent struggle with prostate cancer
I wasn't prepared for the complications, mainly infections. Though I acted courageous, I was seething inside. At times, my anger overflowed onto my wife or the dog, but mostly it feasted on me. I became depressed. I functioned, but I didn't engage with others or with life.
I continued this way for about a year, surviving on autopilot until I began cycling. Riding my bike 16-25 miles, 3 days a week raised me out of the depression and provided an outlet for my anger.
Still I didn't talk to others about my cancer experience. I had no idea whether others had similar travails. Mine was a private journey, observed with sorrow and concern by my wife, but always at some distance because of my short temper.
My second cancer diagnosis: Metastatic melanoma
Muddling and pedaling along on my own, I made it to the fifth anniversary of my prostate cancer diagnosis, only to discover a swollen lymph node under my right arm. When the biopsy revealed that I had metastatic melanoma, I instantaneously felt a yawning abyss opening beneath me.
After surgical removal of the node confirmed the melanoma diagnosis, my oncologist said that nothing more could be done. We would just wait to see if it recurred.
The power of including others in my second cancer journey
My wife and I were not about to go down the same rabbit hole of compliance that we had after my prostate cancer diagnosis. We sought a second opinion. We researched alternatives. We explored. We shared our feelings and thoughts with family and friends.
Together we determined our course of action: We would go to MD Anderson.
Being actively engaged changed the dynamics completely. Instead of turning my anger inward, I directed it towards research and action. I joined a clinical trial with the understanding that even if the trial did not help me, it might help someone else. I became an active participant rather than a victim.
Now that I had opened up a bit to family and friends, I also decided that I would seek out others living with cancer. My wife and I became members of Gilda's Club and participate actively in that organization.
Through our constantly changing cadre of new friends, we have found added strength and purpose in sharing every aspect of life, including the special grief of walking alongside those who die. Instead of shielding ourselves, we risked becoming involved in the often frustrating narratives of other travelers on the cancer road.
And it brought peculiar joy and satisfaction. It still does.
What we learn from our responses to a cancer diagnosis
I have learned that there is no one way to respond to a cancer diagnosis.
A range of choices challenge each one who hears the fateful words. At times, we'll become passive because the way forward seems too daunting. At other times, we may feel rage at fate for cursing us so. Or we may become frantic in searching for the one magic bullet that will make it all right again.
The fact is that a cancer diagnosis reveals something about ourselves that we might benefit from learning. For me, it was the two-headed beast of anger and how to keep the beast engaged in a positive way. For others, the revelations vary.
While cancer itself is no walk in the park, I am grateful for the opportunities to learn about myself, move outside myself in constructive action, engage others in understanding ways and learn to cherish each little experience as the treat of a lifetime.
Maybe telling my story will encourage others to reflect on theirs. If so, the journey has been worth all the anguish and anxiety.
Ben Sanders is a retired Episcopal priest. Five years after doctors diagnosed him with aggressive prostate cancer, he was diagnosed with metastatic melanoma.