I enjoy writing in this blog, but sometimes, life sends something our way that can’t be summed up in a blog post, or even a few posts. That happened to me in 2017 when I was diagnosed with advanced cancer. My first response was to go for a long ride, and later, I started a story about it.
Occasionally, other cyclists ask to see a few pages of that story, so I’m including a few pages below, along with an idea for others who want to write stories about cycling.
Chapter 1: 3 Years
Friday, 22 September, 2017
I was 51 years old, ran a few marathons, and loved cycling for 100s of miles. At the moment, I wanted to ask Dr. Carrington if I’d make it to retirement. Unfortunately, I couldn’t ask that direct question because I knew how she’d answer. Like most oncologists, she’s very bright and compassionate. That comes from working with many newly diagnosed cancer patients, like me. They answer direct questions about life expectancy with elusive answers.
Sometimes, it’s the over-used phrase, “Every case is different.” Other times, it’s more clever, like “Before I answer, I want to know why you’re asking. There are different answers if you want to have children, buy a house, or travel the world.”
I’d become clever too, so I asked, “On average, how long do men with my type of prostate cancer live?”
She paused at that question. I was asking for a number based on observable facts, which she likely committed to memory every year of her long career. That didn’t give her room for a vague and compassionate reply, although her reply was still gentle.
“You have every reason to think that you’ll live longer than average.”
“How long?” I asked with gentle firmness.
My thoughts stopped. I looked away and leaned back in my chair. The idea that I would live for three years wasn’t unexpected. It was unimaginable.
Until a year ago, all I knew about the prostate gland is that only men have it. Since being diagnosed with prostate cancer, I’d learned a lot more. For starters, it’s most active when men are having a really good time, during sex. Now, it felt like that stupid little sex gland was going to kill me in three years.
She brought me back by firmly repeating, “But you have every reason to think that you’ll live longer.”
I barely heard the words. Sara’s hand gently held mine. We’d been dating for about a year. I’d been diagnosed with cancer soon before we met, and it kept getting worse. I was impressed that she stayed with me. She was a successful technical writer, in downtown St. Paul. I’d often meet her downtown, and we’d enjoy the city together.
My face tightened up, and tears fell down. Emotions were harder to control because of the cancer treatment I was already on. Prostate cells must have testosterone, whether they’re healthy or cancerous. So like most guys in my situation, my testosterone was shut off soon after I was diagnosed.
There are a few symptoms of having no testosterone. You might guess the first one. My sex drive fell to nearly nothing. I’d sometimes joke that if a dozen supermodels were standing in front of a new bike, I’d ask them to get out of the way, so I could see the bike.
Other symptoms of having no testosterone are similar to what women go through during menopause, like hot flashes. I have three sisters, and they’re all older than me. After my testosterone was shut off, I texted them with a question, “Could you give your little brother tips for dealing with menopause, especially hot flashes?”
I learned how to manage those symptoms well enough, but the symptom that stayed out of control was more emotions, mostly sad ones. I’ve always been one of those sensitive types, enjoying theatre and literature and being bored by trucks and football. But without testosterone, I’d become a guy who cried too quickly. Some people can let tears roll down and barely change the look on their face. Sometimes, they even show more compassion or sincerity with those tears. I don’t know how they do it, but I envy them.
Maybe they’re just stronger or calmer than me and feel no shame or indignity in tears. Maybe they’ve finished the hard work of resolving unsettled emotions and accept that tears are part of being a decent, vulnerable human. The people I’m thinking of have all seen hard times, but maybe they haven’t had to accept that their flawed yet wonderful life could end in a few short years.
I still hoped to cycle across more countries, write more stories, and help more people. I still hoped to feel deep love again since I’d only felt it once, in London. I still had family who called me Little Brother. I was the youngest, and it felt like I would go first. I was nowhere near accepting that. It was too sad, and the process of my strong body fading was too scary. Each tear told me I must accept all that, so I fought each one with everything I had. I usually lost the fight, and when I did, the indignity made me cry more.
These thoughts are part of my emotions getting out of control. Fears and frustrations spin around in my head. I wanted them to stop, to focus, and ask Dr. Carrington some questions. But when I tried, my voice wavered, choked up, and the words stopped. I’d been a professor at the University of London who gave lectures to hundreds of medical students in an auditorium, but now in this small office, I couldn’t even talk.
More tears came down, and the amplified emotions convinced me there was no hope. Sara held my hand tighter, and Dr. Carrington handed me a box of tissues. I tried talking again and failed again, a few times. Finally, I found a short question that mattered and forced it out. “What can I do?”
After asking, I realized the question had a few meanings. It could ask what I’d be capable of as a man with advanced cancer. It could ask what life would be like during my few remaining years, or it could ask how I could fight. I didn’t know which meaning mattered. Maybe I was also asking Dr. Carrington to decide, which she did.
“I can give you clear clinical data that people who embrace life live longer. You need to get on your bike.”
End of Excerpt
I took her advice, cycled across the US, and raised over $1 a mile for cancer research. A lot happened on that ride. On a simple level, cycling up mountains, down them, and across Kansas was more memorable than I could have imagined, but there was more. Some of the most memorable moments had nothing to do with cycling or cancer. There were generous strangers, inspirational cyclists, lots of laughs, and even some romance.
I still have cancer, but I’m still cycling—and will be for many years. I’m also still writing. The excerpt above is from Chapter 1 of my current book. I’m now working on Chapter 8. If you’re interested, I’d like to ask and offer something.
I’d like to ask if you or someone you know might want to review one of my chapters. In exchange, I’d like to offer a review of a chapter or short-story. If this idea doesn’t appeal to you, please consider mentioning this page to others who might like it. I suspect it’ll appeal most to cyclists with a bike blog. Also, if this idea doesn’t feel right at the moment, please give it some thought and stop by later. Over the next few months, I’m hoping to mention this idea on other bike blogs, so hopefully, it’ll gain some traction.