The Crying Couch

Kim Smyth

© Copyright 2020 by Kim Smyth

Photo of a couch.

My husband has always been what you’d think of as a tough guy, strong, manly, well he’s always been my rock. I’ve come to depend on his quiet strength to lift me up in times of need and to keep me grounded when my body feels like it’s flying apart. Then came the day we found out he had the “C” word and that was the day his strength was truly tested.

He had been complaining of pain in his lower abdomen forever. We had gone to several different doctors trying to locate the origin, to no avail. He had been to his family physician, a gastroenterologist, and finally, a urologist. This last doctor performed the usual battery of tests, did a biopsy on his prostate and the whole time I was thinking, ‘he’s going to be ok. PSA readings can be high for many different reasons.’ Never mind his dad had prostate cancer. Or that cancer just seems to run in his family. Along with Alzheimer’s disease. I was forever the optimist however and felt like this was some other issue. Maybe he had H-Pylori or some other stomach problem causing his pain. Maybe he had a hernia or somehow pulled a muscle deep in his belly. I would not even consider that it was cancer, that would never happen to us. We were somehow immune to this I reasoned.

This was supposed to be a good year, we had both had experienced our share of family grief, first, my mother passed away after a battle with PKD, then his dad died the same year, in the fall. He had beat cancer but succumbed to Alzheimer’s disease after a four-year fight. His mom was still dealing with all of that when the following month, her oldest son Charlie became ill and died suddenly. Dave lost his oldest brother and it just crushed him. It was out of nowhere evidently, he had been walking around with a tumor on his kidney for several years and didn’t know it, nor was it ever caught by his doctor. His mother went into a deep depression that we aren’t too sure she ever came out of. She is currently dealing with her own cancer and must fight her demons every day. At any rate, this news he got was not welcomed in any way, shape, or form. So much for our good year. Again, this should have set off a red flag for me, but I refused to believe it could be.

As we showed up to the doctor’s office that day, I was full of hope, yet I think Dave already sensed that this meeting was not going to produce the news he wanted to hear. The doctor took us to an office that was different than the ones we had been to before, there was a chair for him and what he referred to as the crying couch for us. No, he didn’t, but I had a gut feeling due to the sparse decoration, and the box of Kleenex sitting on the coffee table. Dave and I sat waiting for him to share his awful news, holding hands and praying he would not say the “C” word. My history of working in the medical field had prepared me in a way, especially the fact that I had worked at a cancer treatment facility for fifteen years. You hope against hope that the news will be different for you though. I had enough confidence and optimism for both of us that we would be getting good news. We were due after the hard year we’d had, right?

It was not good news, however. He showed him his scans which pictured cancer in four lobes of his prostate, two of them being of significant size. His PSA had increased again, and his prognosis was that he should consult with a surgeon who then suggested a prostatectomy. Just cut the whole thing out, then there would be no need for chemo or radiation and his PSA would be zero forever. Radiation had some nasty side effects that would show up in later years and chemo was not even suggested as an option. So, we made the decision to have the surgery, that was the best way to ensure he got to live, even if it meant he would have some “issues” to deal with later. I could not believe it, this was my tough guy, my rock, he was invincible, wasn’t he? Dave put his fingers to his forehead in that classic position of his that signaled he was working through all this information he just got. I sat by his side, trying not to cry and wishing I had heard him wrong. “No matter,” I thought, “We will get through this as we get through everything.”

First, though, we had the dreaded task of sharing the news with his mother, who of course knew we were to find out that day what his diagnosis was. We knew this was not phone call news and as we headed to her house to tell her in person, we discussed how best to say it. Ultimately, we went to his brother Robert’s house first and tried out the news on him. That gave Dave an ice breaker and a bit of practice before cluing his mom in. (I also forgot to mention that I had recently been through something similar with my dad, only his procedure was called TURP surgery, and his prostate was not cancerous, thank God. So, it had been a rough two-year period for the entire family). His mom took it better than we expected. I guess she was kind of expecting more bad news, unfortunately, that had become the norm lately. It was like we were under some dark cloud. Robert took the news worse than their mother did. Maybe she felt like Dave would ultimately be ok, we did explain that the surgery was the best decision, that all cancer would be removed, and he would be alive to face another day. That may have been why she remained so calm, yet who knows, maybe she was being strong for him and secretly cried after we left.

I’m a fixer. I have always been that way and when I get too bossy, Dave tells me my long toe is showing. (My second toe is longer than my first) We laugh, and then he usually does as I ask, even if there is some grumbling about it. Well, I wanted this fixed in the fastest, most efficient way and the surgery was it. Let’s not talk about it long, let’s just get it over with. That was my take on it, I was sure that I was right. Luckily, this time Dave agreed. He did not want to have to endure chemo or radiation, even though he had some trepidation about lingering “issues” down the road. We both felt like they would be manageable. After discussing the options one more time, the decision was made.

We dove in as soon as the appointments were set, met our team of specialists and paid the money to get the ball rolling. I thank God we have insurance every day, yet, even so, the cost was exorbitant, to me anyway. (that was before I had my neck surgery, now THAT was expensive!!) David steeled himself for what was to come and just went for it, trusting his well being to this man that was basically about to remove most of his manhood. Once the prostate is gone you see, things must be done differently, and that has been a learning experience for both of us. Forgive my bluntness, but the man cannot ejaculate anymore, and getting hard comes with the help of medication. That would be an adjustment for any couple I’m sure. In time they say these issues will resolve and we will get our old sex life back, the jury is still out on that.

Fast forward fifteen months and he is still dealing with residual issues like leakage and sexual dysfunction, but at least he is alive and cancer-free. I’ll take it. He is disappointed, yet I try to encourage him and tell him everything is okay. It’s hard because he no longer feels virile and the fact that he must wear pads like a woman is embarrassing to him, it is all part of the deal though. All of this was explained in detail, he is just impatient for his life to return to normal. However, this may be his new normal and we must deal with that. I hope not, for his sake and self-esteem but the important thing is that he is here to feel that way. I have no problem with the way things are going in the bedroom, yet women have different ideas about sex and truth be known, we don’t need it that often as the years go by. (Or is it just me?) Another truth is that his drive is not what it used to be, he is tired more often, or maybe again, it is just stress. Stress from his job, family problems, not sleeping at night…whatever.

He could go to therapy they said, learn to control those muscles that allow him to leak, yet he just can’t seem to find the time. Kind of like when he is asked to perform a dreaded honey-do or take a dose of medicine. Yet if it was me and my health, he would act like a drill sergeant to make sure I did my exercises or therapy. Men are just different I’ve noticed. They think they must tough everything out, yet if I didn’t want to wear pads like a woman, it seems logical that the next step would be to go to therapy. His dad had diabetes, yet he would not stop drinking beer or eating sweets. Eventually, he drank non-alcoholic beer, but by then it was too late. And who's to say that didn’t cause his Alzheimer’s? But he wanted to do what he wanted to do; consequences be damned. His mother had diabetes and Alzheimer’s, yet he never considered the connection, I guess. The whole family (and mine too) seems to have that “just rub some dirt on it” mentality, like they aren’t supposed to get sick or have accidents and if they do, well they will just power through it. One time, since my mother has been gone and my dad is mostly on his own, something he left on the stove blew up in his face. He didn’t call anyone, did not drive himself to the ER, just splashed some water on his face and went on about his business. I was shocked and hurt when I found out three days later. That is just how they are though.

I guess it comes down to what we each deem the most important as individuals. I’m not perfect either, yet I usually try to do what I know is best for my health and I wish I could get my family to do the same. I want to be around long enough to enjoy my retirement with my husband. That is why we decided on him having the surgery, to make sure the cancer was gone and that he was here to live long enough to someday get to retire. Not having chemo meant he would not ever have to feel miserable and sick, and not having radiation meant that he did not do irreversible damage to his personal area, like burn his sexual organs or sensitive areas. The surgery was a one-and-done option that we both agreed was the perfect solution.

I had previously worked as a phlebotomist in a cancer center on and off for fifteen years. I saw what chemo and radiation did to people and I realize that many times it is necessary. My mother-in-law recently got diagnosed with a rare type of non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma that the doctor plainly stated he has no idea how to cure. She had to endure a year of mild chemotherapy which was really very easy on her, she didn’t get sick or lose her hair. Now, however, it is not working anymore, and she is going through a very harsh type of chemo called CHOP. Knowing he had a family history should have made me more vigilant about him getting tested more frequently and I have some guilt about that. The doctor did tell him, however, that if you are a man and you live long enough, you will eventually get prostate cancer. I have no idea if that’s true, yet it made me feel like I hadn’t failed him anyway. I remember thinking that he was wrong, there must be some mistake, how could he be delivering this kind of news when I had prayed so hard, been so positive he was going to be fine?

I think back to the day we were led to that couch in the doctor’s office and it feels so long ago. I think about the look on the doctor’s face as he delivered the news and the way my heart sunk when I heard it. He was not unkind, just no-nonsense. I think about not being able to hold back the tears even as I steeled my resolve to do whatever it took to save my husband’s life. I personally feel that Dave has faced everything thrown at him with his usual strength and bravery, that he is due the little bit of whining he has done, and that he will bounce back, straighten up, and fly right eventually.

I also believe that the doctor that delivered the awful news to us should consider some new office décor.

(Update on this essay, things are MUCH better now.)

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