Out of the Office: Journey to Cancerland

These Out of the Office columns give the writers of the Homer News and Peninsula Clarion an opportunity to tell of exciting adventures in our lives outside of work. We write of running, skiing, camping and the wonder of exploring this great state we call home.

Sometimes, our adventures take us places we never expected to go, like Cancerland.

On July 20 after receiving some hard news from my urologist about a prostate biopsy I had done, I called and texted family and friends: “Crap: I have cancer.” Thus started the roughest journey I’ve ever taken.

I will pause here for a quick PSA about PSA. The public service announcement is this: People with prostates, talk to your physician about if you should get Prostate-Specific Antigen tests.

PSA is a protein produced by normal as well as malignant cells in the prostate. According to the National Cancer Institute, guidance on who should get PSA tests and when they should get them varies.

As part of the Rotary Health Fair, through Nov. 4 blood draws are being offered that include PSA tests. Sign up for blood tests through the health fair website.

A PSA test saved my life. At my annual physical last December, I had a PSA slightly above normal. My urologist recommended a follow-up PSA in June, and that one showed an even higher PSA.

I got a biopsy. Without getting too graphic or gross, let me just say that a prostate biopsy would be exactly the sort of thing evil aliens would do in a bad science fiction movie when the hero gets abducted.

Entering Cancerland can be a bit like going to an amusement park. There will be lots of waiting. It can get expensive. You will feel like you’ve gone on the worst roller coaster ever. When I wrote “Crap: I have cancer,” I went to a quiet place, sat down on the floor and cried whooping tears until I accepted my fate.

And then I got to work.

Every cancer will be different and not everyone will choose the same treatment option. I talked to two urologist surgeons, a radiation oncologist, and, oh yeah, prostate cancer survivors.

As I told people of my diagnosis, men opened up to me. My friend Pete told me of his own struggle, and then almost every day he called or texted me to check on me.

At the Homer Burning Basket, Breathe, right after I put up a little artwork that said, “So long, prostate; be gone, cancer,” Ed came up to me and said, “Michael, I hear you have prostate cancer. I’m a survivor. Let’s talk.”

I told some longtime writer friends in a group message about my cancer, and one of them, Bob, emailed me to say he’d just gone through prostate cancer treatment. We hadn’t talked since 1993, and in an hourlong phone call he shared his experience. Bob writes thrillers, and he told me, “Kill the devil.”

Another writer friend, John, hadn’t been through cancer, but he’s a Vietnam War Marine combat veteran and knows about life-threatening stuff. John did some research — he’s wicked smart — and sent me a link to a guide from the Prostate Cancer Foundation. John has called and texted me frequently to check on me and keep me going.

Cancerland is a bit like traveling on the Underground Railroad, the 19th century network of safe homes enslaved people traveled on in escaping from the slaver South and toward freedom. Like the Underground Railroad, in Cancerland there are many conductors guiding you to safety — so many conductors.

My wife, Jenny — my number one biggest supporter, by the way — and I talked to doctors, did our research, and I decided that the best treatment option for me was, as my friend John said, “Cut that sucker out.” I opted for a robotic-assisted radical prostatectomy.

In this surgery, doctors cut small holes in your belly and go in with cameras and remotely manipulated tools to remove the prostate. I’m a science fiction writer, so I know that the idea of remotely manipulated tools comes from Robert A. Heinlein’s “Waldo & Magic and Company,” a novella he wrote 70 years ago about a man who invents remotely manipulated tools that Heinlein called “Waldoes.”

Science fiction saved my life. Thank you, Mr. Heinlein.

So here I am, with scars in my belly that Bob said would make me look like I’d been in a knife fight. I tire easily and nap often. Since the first week in October I’ve been on medical leave and won’t be back at work until Halloween.

The good news is that the pathology report confirmed what I’d hoped: the cancer had not spread beyond my prostate or into the margins. “Be gone, cancer” I offered to the Burning Basket, and for now, my hope has been confirmed.

I know very well that cancer kills. According to the National Cancer Institute, this year 268,490 American men will be diagnosed with prostate cancer and 34,500 men are expected to die of the disease. I have lost friends to prostate cancer, to breast cancer and to other cancers.

I also know of many who have survived, or who have survived and had cancer come back. Cancerland is like the Hotel California. You can check out but you can never leave.

I’ll keep monitoring those PSAs. I’ll heal. I’ll come back from this, stronger, better. The Clan Armstrong motto reads “Invictus maneo,” or “I remain unvanquished.”

I remain unvanquished.

Reach Michael Armstrong at marmstrong@homernews.com.