My Story: After Prostate Cancer Diagnosis, Finding the Mercy of the Angels Around Us

When the weight of cancer becomes overwhelming, friends and family are there to offer comfort.

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The compassion of friends and family helped Dan Zenka get through a particularly bad day. (Photo courtesy of Dan Zenka)

Two years after having my diagnosis upgraded to Stage 4 metastatic disease, it happened. I finally had my SUPERSIZED come-apart last week. I suppose I shouldn’t have been too surprised. Working where I do, I’ve been able to keep a clinical and statistical lid on the simmering pot for quite a long time. Some who know me well, especially my wife, later told me they were waiting for the day when the volcano could no longer lay dormant and emotions would erupt unexpectedly.

My personal Vesuvius vs. Pompeii finally arrived last Monday. I will tell you, as the town lying in the shadow of the volcano, the siege came unexpectedly and with surprising force. The event was triggered by not one catalyst in particular, but by a series of smaller pre-quakes, which passed largely unnoticed.

An early morning meeting with a colleague took an unexpected turn when the discussion focused on me. What was I really feeling? Did I really believe that my outcome COULD be a bad one? How was my family dealing with it? What are my odds? These are questions and issues I have dealt with and answered freely for a while now. I wasn’t particularly shaken by the discussion. In fact, I went back to my desk and sent an email containing three entries from this blog with a note saying, …these might give you some more insights into my life… thanks for asking. Task done.

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Shortly after that, there was a phone call with a newly diagnosed patient who needed some fellow-patient insights on treatment and side effects. His case was very similar to mine. Within 15 minutes we bonded quickly, as members of this brotherhood do. I signed off wishing him well and asking him to keep me posted on his progress. Task done.

Then I read through a clinical study. It was the type that occasionally crops up and causes me to miss a heartbeat or two wondering which outcome group I would fall into. Task done. 

Finally, there was another project that required me to check on some of my cancer brothers on Facebook…

As I stared into the screen, I was confronted by an entry from a fellow patient I have come to know quite well despite the distance. I knew he had been hospitalized the week before. His entry read…Countdown to chemo—T minus 5 hours. I slept well and am not really nervous to get this started. A few positive thoughts and prayers wouldn’t hurt however!! Here’s to the next chapter in the journey! As if that wasn’t enough, his photo, although he was smiling, was a far cry from the man I remembered.

Ground zero… eruption.

I was shocked. I couldn’t breathe. Within seconds, I found I was sobbing at my desk. At last, too much cancer had gotten to me.

No one wants to get teary-eyed at the office, no less be found sobbing at their desk. I turned my chair around to face the window and pretended to be reviewing some materials. I couldn’t tell you what I was looking at for the moment. Three times I tried dialing my wife who was away for the day. Three times I hung up. I knew I wouldn’t be able to coherently relay what was going on at the moment. I thought of my college friends in the South Bay and Orange County. I stopped mid-dial on both of those calls as well.  My calls would only have caused them to wonder what was going on, and I would not be able to squeeze out an audible and comprehendible answer.

When the coast was clear, I plotted a course out the side door with a short recovery in the men’s room that was followed by a beeline to another colleague’s office. She, a double cancer survivor, took one look at me, and I started again. But I was at least in safer territory. She looked at me and said, “Dan, I know what you’re going through… you are thinking about coming off of treatment in several weeks…” She was right. My wife and I have spoken of this several times in the past few weeks. In fact, she was the first to spot that fear in me.

Although I recovered a bit, every five minutes brought on a new eruption. I knew I had to call it a day and hastily asked for permission to escape cancer, which was immediately granted.

Driving back to the South Bay, I took time to stop and look at the ocean. I was still in the throes of my meltdown, but the cool breezes at least provided some comfort. I knew I couldn’t go home yet and face my boys in this condition, so when I thought I had recovered sufficiently, I welcomed two stops I had to make.

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It was these stops that reminded me how compassionate others can be. At both places the sight of a familiar face caused me to lose it once again. At both stops I was taken in and given an opportunity to let my emotions out and breathe. They passed the tissues and just listened. They let me take the time I needed to recover. They found ways to make me laugh. I am grateful for their kindness. It’s remarkable given that I have just gotten to know them to any extent in the past few weeks.

By the time I arrived at home, I was finally calm enough to dial my wife and, among much gentler tears, relay what had happened to me that day and soak in her comfort.

If this journey has taught me nothing more than to acknowledge the mercy of the angels around us—those well known and those who present themselves when needed—it is beyond a doubt a journey worth taking.

Blessings to all our caretakers, loved ones, friends and acquaintances who catch us when we fall.

Dan Zenka is senior vice president of the Prostate Cancer Foundation. In 2010 he was diagnosed with the disease and started the blog My New York Minute to share information and patient perspectives and to encourage men to talk about prostate cancer.

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