Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Unspoken: Cancer's Dehumanizing Late Effect

As published on The Huffington Post

I watched a 33-year-old man sobbing. He stared at me, tears pooling in his eyes until they streamed down his cheeks and he looked away. He buried his face in his hands, his charcoal suit jacket and wedding ring restricting the body convulsions and flow of the tears. I stood frozen watching him, unable to look away or console or forget what he had just told me.

G. asked me to join him for a beer following his professional organization meeting where I had been the guest speaker that evening. I share my story of surviving two childhood cancers anytime audiences will have me. I hope everyone regardless of your medical history can relate to my story, but G. really connected, and our bar tab accelerated.

"I know we've never met, but I feel closer to you than my best friends," G. said. "I got cancer in my left testicle when I was a teenager, around the same age as you when you had your first cancer. Several years later it returned in my other testicle. I've been cancer-free for a long time, now.

"I've never told anyone this besides my wife. I refused to discuss it. I know I'm a stranger to you and this must seem really weird. It's just something about your speech that touched me, and talking with you now I feel a powerful urge to tell you.

"Because of cancer treatment I can no longer get an erection."


Sometimes people share things with me because I had cancer.

During a rehab session, my physical therapist told me about the time he nearly burned his house down as a kid. He would set the large field behind his house alight just to watch the fire trucks, but one time he left something smoldering in the rubber trashcan in the back of his house, and it started burning. "Somehow we noticed the huge flame and managed to contain the fire," he said as I lost count of my leg lifts to strengthen my hip flexors. "It could've been really disastrous."


G. provided me with graphic and personal details, while teaching me. I sensed that he needed to share so I listened, and later researched what he shared on my own.

G.'s dysfunction was slow and progressive so he could not pinpoint when it began. The first time it registered was during a date with his now-wife, after they'd been seeing each other for a few months. He even detailed for me the precise moment his dysfunction registered, which I think haunts him: they had each had a couple glasses of wine at a bar with a live jazz band. She reached for his hand and their fingers locked. He knew he would get to share her bed that night.

An erection begins in the brain. Mental stimulation cause nerves in the brain to tell nerves in the penile blood vessels to relax so that blood can flow freely. He imagined undressing her, button by button; her soft skin, warm to the touch.

Once blood flows into the penis, high pressure traps it within both corpora cavernosa. This causes the penis to expand and sustain an erection. G. would turn off the lights and take her under the sheets. He would explore her with the senses other than sight.

Then he stopped imagining because he felt nothing. Keep reading, here