The Cancer Diagnosis That Seemed to Make Little Sense

A retirement counselor with bladder cancer shares the story of his diagnosis and his thoughts on treatment.

Some years ago, a little ditty/phrase began running through my head, "What's the matter, it's my bladder." I don't know where it came from except that it was a clever (almost) rhyme.

I was not having any urinary problems (at the time) and as far as I knew I was in quite good health. For most of my life I've taken pretty good care of myself, as a tennis player, runner and pretty much a health purist – non-drinker, non-smoker, non-drug user.

Not that my life hasn't had its stresses – a divorce, the suicide of a dear loved one (who, by the way, had a serious incontinence problem caused by spina bifida), bouts with unemployment and a colossal failure to build a house on five acres of land in the Pacific Northwest (though not my fault) which preceded the suicide.

Yet I consider myself a lucky man in general and have now been married to a good woman for nearly 25 years with whom I've run several profitable businesses. We've become upstanding citizens in a small community in a desirable location on the California coast. I have 12 grandchildren and family members in abundance (except my parents who died in their mid-80's). Vocationally, I ran the Greener Pastures Institute for 15 years and received gobs of nationwide publicity prior to meeting my sweet and hardworking wife Eleanor. And I can say that I've helped thousands find their small town "Shangri-Las."

The above "ditty," however, could possibly be considered some kind of premonition or even prediction, because around the time COVID-19 impacted the world, I was diagnosed with a virulent case of bladder cancer.

Affecting only about one in 27 men overall, but more in their 60s and 70s, according to the American Cancer Society. Women get it in much fewer numbers. I wrote the headline "Rare, Unfair and a Big Scare: My Battle with Bladder Cancer," for a PBS site, nextavenue.org, about a year ago. Next Avenue is for seniors and no one had ever written on the subject before at the site, despite the online journal's existence for many years.

Bladder cancer is something of a medical mystery. Smoking is certainly causative as is exposure to industrial chemicals. I never smoked. I painted quite a few apartments when I ran a business for landlords, but the paint wasn't the toxic, oil-based kind with fumes, but latex. I grew up in smoggy Los Angeles (smog is caused mostly by car exhaust), but I left as a young man for Oregon and started running on the famous Hayward Field track there in fresh air – I once did a 5:10 mile. Had my lungs been damaged I would not have had the ability to run the above race, and once a 17-minute 5000 meters, without coaching and as a complete amateur.

One possible causative of the bladder cancer I eventually got: both the quality, and quantity, of my drinking water.

Most Americans take their drinking water pretty much for granted. I certainly did. Consumers Union recently published a piece that condemns many municipal water sources for the amount of toxins in them – phthalates, chlorine, lead and arsenic. Arsenic, very recently, has been implicated in bladder cancer cases. None of these chemicals should be ingested, yet we are lab rats if we do not seek out a purer source of this life-maintaining liquid. (Yet bottled water has its critics as well).

As to quantity – and I might add preemptively that drinking more of the bad stuff doesn't quite make sense – health authorities say most of us don’t drink enough water to stay sufficiently hydrated and for adequate digestion of our food. I admit to not drinking enough but how many fail to get the recommended eight eight-ounce glasses of fluids daily? That's a lot of water and quite a few trips a day to pee it out in the "john."

However, the bladder is sensitive to a lack of fluids and the buildup of toxins that somehow escape the cleansing kidneys via the ureters. At least that's what I have found out – much too late. And everything liquid that isn't excreted through sweat must pass through the little pear-shaped organ that is the bladder, out of sight and out of mind for most of us.

So somewhere along the line, the epithelial lining of my bladder changed to become receptive to cancer cells. Since I wasn't looking for any signs of it, I ignored some small red spots that were being excreted with my urine until I admitted seeing them to my wife and I then had several tests/scans etc. Then we went to a local urologist, who confirmed the diagnosis of cancer after a cystoscopy and biopsy.

I had gotten cancer at the exact average age most men do statistically – 73 years.

Nobody wants to hear that they have cancer. It certainly can be a death sentence without some form of treatment because cancer cells love to replicate in oxygen-free tissues (hiding out, in effect). I was told that I needed what's called a transurethral resection of bladder tumor (TURBT), a surgical operation under anesthesia where the cancer cells, which hopefully, haven't escaped the bladder wall (a worst-case scenario) are removed with precision.

While all this was going on, I admit I was somewhat in denial, especially since my daily activities hadn't been affected in the slightest. I was still playing tennis, hiking and biking, etc. Sex wasn't affected, except that when you fear for your life it's hard for it to be of the highest quality.

Your world changes when suddenly, and drastically, you become a "sick person." You start getting a lot of sympathetic or empathetic responses, but since bladder cancer is rarely talked about in the general population, few can (or really want to) understand it. In my community, I met (via the internet) only one person who had had it, and he'd lost his bladder when the cancer wasn't removed soon enough. He is now living a new normal, with a urinary diversion, using what they call a urostomy bag, which is a way for the urine to leave his body into an artificial bladder outside the abdomen. No one wants that. But at least removal stops the cancer, and you aren't going to die, unless the cancer has spread to lymph nodes etc.

Now there's another ditty/expression I think about often: "Life isn't fair." I've known (and "own" that) and my response has always been to accept it. But it really isn't fair when you have a disease that you don't feel you had anything to do with causing and suddenly become a potentially "permanent patient." You start seeing your life as a series of events on a "medical merry-go-round" that never stops. And with the cancer I got, and as I write this, I have a sinking feeling that it is my fate – despite two surgeries to remove the tumors and chemo treatments that supposedly help keep the cancer from returning.

The latest is that the cancer, which surgeons told me they "removed completely," might be back via a mass they haven't quite identified as of yet. Complete removal is probably a fantasy, anyway, when it comes to cancerous tissue once it gets entrenched.

Then again, maybe I am just being paranoid. What I have been reading in the "holistic health" literature lately (and there's lots) is that you can't "kill" cancer with treatments that cause cancer (chemo), only deter it. Sooner or later, you need to build up your natural immune system – which when healthy might reduce the chance that cancer can propagate – via the infusion of healthy foods, vitamins and herbs along with methods to "detoxify" your body which likely contains remnants of the chemo treatments and has been weakened by them. (I read that the first chemo was derived from mustard gas, used in World War I to cripple enemy soldiers. Great.)

As I write, I do feel like I am in completely good health. I even write a column in my local daily paper, "Active Over 50." That's me! I can't imagine not being active, yet possibly still having cancer gives one serious pause. I want it gone now and for it to never return, because it doesn't "deserve" to be in me ... I have done just about everything the doctors told me to do, but the problem is they won't accept that I am quite well and keep "drilling" for more signs of infirmity.

It should be up to me to continue to defend against any future cancer by living not only right but heroically, day to day. I thought I was doing this before the cancer, as it's something people should just do. Chin into the wind, as fearless as possible. I may only have ten or a few more years to live anyway (my folks' longevity is an indication, by their 80s they suffered from various ills).

At 74, I feel like I can do almost anything (except forget I have had this cancer). My mind is as sharp as ever, my tennis game nearly so (I won a tournament only a few years ago). My wife and I travel the world (or we did, before COVID-19), I write articles regularly published (mostly in seniors publications) and we see friends and family quite frequently It's not only a good life, it's a great life. Maybe to even to bring this cancer issue up at this point makes me a bit of a crybaby.

But I feel compelled to tell my story, which I also have at bcan.org, the website of the Bladder Cancer Advocacy Network, a national patient advocacy group based in Maryland. Bladder cancer should not be a death sentence until, alas, it is (I still maintain I am in remission).

We need to get a handle on the toxins in our environment and promote healthfulness better – especially the eating of myriad fruits and vegetables, avoiding refined sugars, hydration with pure water, avoiding most drugs, stopping the epidemic of smoking and getting plenty of exercise at every stage of life. If you're upright, you should be able to do those things.

I still am quite upright (and outspoken), so I hope you have gotten something out of this missive, especially if you have cancer or fear getting it. Wish me luck but recognize that I have already had plenty of it.

And tomorrow's always another day.

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