Finding courage to talk about 'medical things'

Dan Rodricks

September 18, 1992|By Dan Rodricks

A woman will start a conversation -- it could be my mother, my wife, my sister, a co-worker -- and I will stop her in mid-sentence: "Wait a minute," I say. "Is this about a medical thing?"

I'm one of those.

The world is full of men like me. Ignorant and immature and cowardly -- and especially so when it comes to "medical things."

As a matter of fact, I think the male world is divided into two kinds of men -- those who are willing to talk about the prostate and those who aren't.

I know a guy named Louie who is perfectly willing to talk about "medical things," including the prostate. He is not obsessed, as some people are, with "medical things." He's neither a bore nor a hypochondriac. But he is willing to confront health issues, especially his own, and this attitude might have helped save his life.

Louis is 65 and in good health. He sees a doctor for an annual physical and has done so for years. He watches his cholesterol level and blood pressure carefully, and eats accordingly.

His diet strikes a good balance between eating for enjoyment and eating for health. I can say this because I have sat many times at Louie's table. He and his wife, both born on farms in France, organically grow most of the vegetables they eat,

spending a good part of the summer and fall canning and freezing what comes from their garden.

Louie takes long, invigorating walks. He rewards himself for not smoking with an occasional cigar. He enjoys a bottle of wine and, on special occasions, a brandy after dinner.

I have never known him to overdo anything. He maintains the valuable rule of "everything in moderation," and does so with admirable discipline. And he stays in good humor; he laughs a lot.

When it comes to confronting "medical things," he does so with the kind of willingness missing in fully half the male population.

This makes him, in my book, not only brave, but smart. He is probably going to live longer because of it.

"It's prostate cancer," was how I heard the news over the telephone.

This happened in early August. Louie had been suffering an inflammation in one of his legs, so he went immediately for a checkup instead of waiting another two months for his annual physical. While he was getting examined, his doctor conducted the simple, routine test of the prostate -- the one that makes half the male population cringe. Further tests confirmed the cancer.

"If they caught it early, he has a good chance of making it," said a friend in an attempt to console. "My father waited and waited. He didn't take care of it. By the time they finally checked him, the cancer had spread to his bones and it was too late. He suffered terribly."

Too many men who are at risk of prostate cancer (in particular, black men over 40, and men of any race if a relative has had the disease) wait too long to be tested. That's why the last week of September will be National Prostate Cancer Awareness Week, why the governor and attorney general of Maryland, a survivor himself, joined together to announce a campaign of free screenings and lectures intended to reduce the state's high death rate -- Maryland ranks sixth nationally -- from prostate cancer.

Already, this campaign can boast impressive results. In three days this week, for example, more than 400 screenings were conducted at Sinai Hospital, and last night the hospital's grounds supervisor, Gary Jenkins, lined up some of his men for screenings. Another 200 men contacted Sinai and are being scheduled for appointments.

This is good to hear. Many men skip the test because they fear bad news from their doctors and because they have a general paranoia about "medical things." Believe me, I know the feeling.

I would advise my brothers, though, to smarten up and not wait for personal experience to force them into reckoning with the facts of life.

Louie's experience in August -- learning of the presence of prostate cancer, not knowing whether it had spread -- was terribly frightening. Here was a man in robust health, who had just retired from a life of hard work and who was looking forward to years of travel and pleasure. He had taken good care of himself.

Then, suddenly, he was confronted with the Big C, and everything -- strange tests, somber doctors, percentages, chances, prognoses -- associated with it.

"See what you got to look forward to?" said the middle-aged man in the hospital bed next to Louie's. He, it turned out, also was waiting for test results.

Fortunately -- that word seems so meager in the context of life and death -- Louie's tests brought good news. His doctors had caught the cancer early, they had removed the diseased part of his prostate, they had checked other glands and bones and found either benign cells or no cancer.

Louie is my father-in-law, my wife's dad, the grandfather of my son and one of the great men of my life. He's home now. He's lucky, yes. He's also smart. I never stop learning from him.

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