Woster: No cancer is good, but it's good to talk about it
I have friends who talk and laugh about their cancers and treatments. Deadly as it can be, they don't let it silence them.
When I told people 28 years ago that I had prostate cancer, the reaction I disliked the most was, “Well, that’s a good one to get.”
It has been a long while since I received my cancer diagnosis. Prostate cancer has gotten its own ribbon (blue) and month (September). For me though, prostate cancer is linked to March. That’s when, in 1995 at the age of 51, a successful surgery gave me more time.
I remember how angry that “good one to get” phrase made me. Well-meaning, sure, but maddening. I doubt I showed my feelings. Inside, I boiled.
All my life to that point, cancer had terrified me. Back when I grew up, people rarely said the word, much less talked about local folks or relatives who had cancer. Nobody said one cancer or another was a good one to get, because nobody said “cancer.”
Today, thankfully, more people talk. Diagnoses have improved. Treatments have improved. Outcomes, in most cases, have improved, especially with early detection and appropriate treatment. I have friends who talk and laugh about their cancers and treatments. Deadly as it can be, they don't let it silence them. I wish it had been so when my dad was going through his cancer.
I was 24 when my dad died. They called it stomach cancer. We don’t know if that was an actual diagnosis. After exploratory surgery in Minneapolis, the medical team said there was nothing to be done. They closed my dad up and sent him home to get his affairs in order.
That was in June of 1968. Henry Woster, a bull-strong farmer of 56 years, lasted eight weeks after he came home. He spent a lot of time in a faded green lawn lounger under the shade tree in our south yard, mostly alone. A few friends visited. The conversations were brief and awkward. It was not the way a decent, hard-working man of the land should have had to spend his final days.
Things were better by the time I became a cancer patient and survivor. More people were willing to talk about it. Gosh, I sometimes talked about nothing else. More information was available. Nancy and I bought out the cancer aisle in a Sioux Falls bookstore before we left for home after our first meeting with the surgeon who would become one of my favorite people in the world.
I was not necessarily good at talking about cancer. When I broke the news to the member of the church choir I had been with for most of 20 years. I ended with, “I'm sorry,” as if I had let these friends down.
Larry the bass player bellowed, “What are you sorry about? You’re the one with cancer. We should be sorry. How are you doing? What can we do?”
That’s the kind of thing I wish people had been able to say to my dad. I will say this though. As the end neared, a wonderfully loyal friend went to the hospital in the mornings with a razor and shaving cream and scraped the stubble from my dad’s withered face. Perhaps that made up for some of the silence that had enveloped my dad in his last few weeks.
In my case, things went smoothly. Surgery in those days was pretty rugged. With Nancy’s help and a lot of support from friends, I managed. I vaguely remember when, not long after I awoke from surgery, a nurse said she was going to get me out of bed to hop on a scale. I knew that was never going to happen, not ever again. It did, though.
Life since then has gone so smoothly I sometimes feel like an imposter. Then, as I do each March, I look through American Cancer Society statistics and see that, except for skin cancer, prostate cancer is the most common one in men in the United States — more than 288,000 new cases a year. Except for lung cancer, it kills more men than any other form of cancer — nearly 35,000 a year.
Prostate cancer may be a better one to get than some others, but no cancer is a good one.