At times, over these past decades, I have heard myself say, almost flippantly, about the chronic form of prostate cancer that I, and most men with the disease are dealing with, “Don’t worry—we’re going to die with it, not from it.” But in the meantime?
I almost had a bad fall last night. Barely recovered in time. I notice I am increasingly wobbly. Unsteady. I lose my balance and barely recover to avoid what might have been a serious fall. Suddenly the world is full of sharp edges and uneven paths. What to do?
I know the rules about exercise. But my body, heading for 82, is noticeably less trustworthy than it was even a year ago. And because my knees and arms are not capable of their former range of exercise (stationary bike, yes, walking and treadmill, no) I can feel the constant ache and low-grade pain as my muscles proceed to atrophy. And while I know there is “armchair yoga,” it isn’t that easy to find a class, and I am less than enthusiastic to try it, so for now I am yoga-less. What to do?
My moaning is muffled. It could be so much worse! has become one of my mantras, almost a prayer of thanks. I have one old friend, Jack, whose pacemaker, following a stroke, has helped his heart outlive his brain. His loving wife and friend of 43 years, Muriel, is still his aide and comforter, helping him to the toilet, changing his diaper, getting him back comfortably onto the couch, but, but . . .
Anton Chekhov, who died of tuberculosis in 1904, wrote: “Whenever there is someone in a family who has long been ill, and hopelessly ill, there come painful moments when all timidly, secretly, at the bottom of their hearts, long for his death.” The truth is, secretly, and at the bottom of her heart, Muriel would hope for that pacemaker in Jack’s chest to fail.Which brings me to the troubling issue of American Medical Overdoing. All the advances are functioning to keep Jack functioning. Why? Because they can. Because someone is making money off stents, pacemakers, airport defibrillators, 911 emergency assistance, insurance that pays for hugely expensive specialists. I can only tell you that Muriel, who has seen too many close friends losing control of their lives and slowly dying, keeps a copy of the Hemlock Society’s Final Exit, underlined in red, on her desk.
The problem is—and it’s the result of medical advances—the number of us who survive health crises that previously would have killed us, is growing rapidly. The eldest of us are the nation’s most rapidly growing age group. And, God help us, nearly one third of all Americans over 85 have some degree of dementia. At least half of them need someone’s help with daily, life-sustaining activities.What makes my life worth living? Being able to peck out my thoughts on my Mac. Being able to share my thoughts with others who, I hope, will appreciate them. Being able to reach out to friends. To be of some small service to others who find themselves “in the same boat.” And maybe most important, not be too alarmed by death or its not so clandestine approach. As someone put it, “Nobody is really in charge except the marketplace.” And we wait for the bio-ethicists to have some impact on the opposite of over-kill. Maybe “over save-gate?” When does a life cease to be a life, and become a prolonged and agonizing dying? Sick enough to never get better? When indeed?
Prostate cancer and I have been working allies for almost a quarter of a century. Working my way through the thickets of fear and health concerns, having a black belt prostate oncologist, Dr. Mark Scholz as my guide, has left me far more conscious of health maintenance and wise options. I have to confess I am in some ways a healthier and happier man from living all these years with my cancerous prostate.