I smile as I use the word ‘catastrophe’. It seems far too melodramatic now. But that’s how it seemed in 2010. But wait, let’s go back a bit.
I’d first noticed symptoms – needing to pee a lot, particularly at night, and other indications of prostate trouble – in 2004. I went to my doctor and she referred me to a urologist.
I quickly embarked on a series of blood tests and prostate biopsies. The blood tests suggested that something was indeed wrong with my prostate, but the biopsies failed to detect any tumour. Then in spring 2009, with my blood test results continuing to cause concern, the urologist decided on a different approach: he would take a sample from the centre of the gland via the urethra. (The first three biopsies had taken samples via the conventional rectal route.)
And there it was! I had prostate cancer! At 45 I was very young to have what is often considered an old man’s cancer.
The tumour was judged to be moderately aggressive. Fortunately, it seemed the cancer had not spread beyond the gland. After discussions with the consultants I decided to have my prostate completely removed. I hoped that by having the entire gland removed the cancer would be taken with it. The operation was done in May 2009.
Recovery from surgery took longer than I’d expected. My new plumbing – a catheter and an abdominal drain – were unwieldy and the complication of an infection led to an extra week in hospital. The plumbing was finally removed three weeks after the operation. Only then did I feel able to take my first real steps towards recovery. I suffered from chronic tiredness at first; a simple trip to the supermarket felt like a herculean undertaking.
Regaining control of my bladder took several months. More dispiriting was the slowly dawning realisation that I might be left with significant side-effects of treatment for the rest of my life.
But my health improved and I was happy. Regular blood tests suggested that the cancer had been eradicated and I looked to the future with optimism.
Then in spring 2010 my luck ran out. One of the greatest certainties of my life crumbled. It was as if the ground had fallen away from beneath my feet and I was tumbling through space.
What happened? Well, it’s something I prefer not to write about. And to tell the truth there was nothing remarkable about my little catastrophe. Many people have suffered similar sorrows. Many people have suffered much much worse. But this was my catastrophe and it was the most painful experience of my life so far. For a time it made prostate cancer, by comparison, seem like just a minor inconvenience.
So, cancer threatened my life and had lasting effects on several important bodily functions, yet had an insignificant effect on my happiness. This other event, however, which had no direct effect whatsoever on my physical wellbeing, somehow plunged me into despair and drove me to the brink of madness (if not beyond). How strange!
Amidst the turmoil of life at this time one thing was becoming clear: events inside my mind were having a much more damaging effect on my wellbeing than anything that was happening to my body. To find happiness again I would need to begin learning to control my mind.
So how did I respond to this crisis? Well, I did some stupid things but I also did at least four helpful things.
First, I had a few sessions with a counsellor. It was a wonderful relief to have someone to whom I could tell everything. She had a knack of asking questions that stopped me in my tracks and forced me to look at things in new, and often more constructive, ways.
Second, I threw myself into the sea and swam. The cold water and the rhythm of swimming helped me, at least for short periods, to forget the past and stop worrying about the future. Also, the sensation of floating and gliding comfortably in a medium where nothing was solid got me wondering: is it possible to be at peace and happy in a world with no firm foundations?
Third, I started to read about Buddhism. Some of what I read was pretty inscrutable but I was intrigued and read on. I quickly felt at ease with Buddhism because it presents itself, not as a divine revelation that must be believed and obeyed, but as a way of thinking and living that can be put to the test. I liked that it attempts to grapple with the universal human problem of suffering. Buddhism also affirms human dignity; we are not miserable, sinful wretches who depend on God’s mercy for salvation; according to Buddhism we have within ourselves the resources to find our own happiness and contribute to the happiness of others.
Fourth, I got involved with Black Mountain Zen Centre in Belfast. My friend, Gary, had been attending meditation there for years and I had always been curious. I was desperate for relief from my torment and willing to try almost anything, so I went along. What a weird place! Long periods were spent in silence, just sitting facing the wall with short breaks of comically-slow walking providing the only relief. How could this possibly help anyone?
It didn’t make a lot of sense to me but, after a while, I had to admit that I was starting to feel a little better. My thoughts, as I sat there gazing at the wall, were still mostly miserable but gradually I began to detach myself just a little from them and smile at them gently.
I made some good friendships with people at the Zen Centre. Some of them were even odder than me so I quickly felt at home. Slowly, very slowly, I learned to be a little less preoccupied with my troubles. Saturday morning meditation, followed by a good chat over breakfast in a nearby cafe, soon became a regular fixture in the week.
So, all this – the counselling, the swimming, the Buddhism and the new friendships – was helping. There was no miracle. I still felt quite miserable and bewildered a lot of the time but I was beginning to accept reality and entertain the notion that happiness might just be possible irrespective of my personal circumstances.
But then, towards the end of 2010, I received some bad news. The cancer had come back. The big question though was, where was it? Was it still close to where my prostate had been? If so then a cure was still theoretically possible. Or had it spread to a completely different part of the body? If this was the case then I would have to resign myself to living with the cancer for the rest of my, possibly abbreviated, life. I would have to manage it through hormone therapy.
Despite having various scans it was not possible to locate the tumour, which was probably very small.
The decision was taken to proceed on the assumption that the cancer had not spread and hope for the best. In January 2011 I embarked on a six and a half week course of daily radiotherapy, knowing all the while that, if the cancer had spread, the treatment would prove futile.
Some aspects of my daily routine during the weeks of radiotherapy struck me as surreal. For example, every weekday morning I would lie on a bench while a relative stranger, usually a young woman, poked through my pubic hairs in search of the minute tattoo that was used to align me correctly for treatment.
I had been warned to expect tiredness; that never came. What did become a serious problem was the upset to my bladder and bowel. This kicked in during the treatment and remains a continuing frustration to this day, many months after the end of treatment.
Much more importantly though, the assumption that the cancer had not spread seems to have been vindicated; periodic blood tests continue to suggest that the cancer has gone.
So, how is life now?
My life is a happy one. Every day is full of opportunities for happiness and I try, not to grasp them but, to jump into them. Even to breathe is wonderful. I could write a book about the wonders of the natural world, the beauty of a smile freely given, the happiness to be found in a cup of lapsang souchong on a rainy evening. But what would be the point? These are things that everyone must discover for themselves.
I am, of course, glad that I no longer seem to have cancer and am very grateful to all the medical staff and family and friends who cared for me. You know who you are!
Life still has its frustrations and sorrows. I am still in some discomfort a lot of the time and always lurking in the back of my mind is the question: where is the nearest toilet? I'll be left with the side-effects of treatment for a long time. I’m sad about that, but I accept it and am grateful to be alive.
As for the catastrophe, its place in my life has diminished significantly as I have learned to manage my mind. In fact, it no longer seems a catastrophe. What was once an impenetrable fog is now nothing more than a small dark cloud high above. I know it’s there but it does little to stop the sunshine reaching me.
This is a wall. If you decide to practice Soto Zen you're going to see a lot of this sort of thing. According to legend Bodhidharma, a hero of early Zen, spent nine years gazing at a wall.
My radiotherapy pants. Gone are the days when you can turn up for treatment in any old pair of grubby Y-fronts. In this fashion-conscious age no self-respecting patient will show up for treatment in anything other than stylish radiotherapy pants.