Surviving In This Very Moment…

My Personal Battle with Prostate Cancer … And Life!

Archive for the tag “Prostate cancer”

The Evidence for Being is Being

A light blue ribbon symbolizes prostate cancer

A light blue ribbon symbolizes prostate cancer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

To paraphrase Emmanuel Levinas, the evidence for ontology is the existence of all of us. The problem with making ontology primary is that it simply asks the wrong questions. If one, for example, wishes to make intentional actions the basis of ontology, for each intentional act there are an infinite number of unintentional acts that coincide with it. Say I wish to read a book, in the act of picking up the book (intentional) as the first step in reading, I displace dust surrounding the book (unintentional), crinkle the elbow of my shirt causing additional wear on the fibers woven into the sleeve at the elbow (unintentional), displace a few skin cells that fall as dust (unintentional), cause a bit of wear on the edges of the book that scrape across the shelf (unintentional), and so on. The very idea that in accomplishing an intentional act, we leave unintended traces behind so as to alter the space in which we are interactive beings-in-the-world because we are also changing that very world in which we are beings-in-the-world. It is not enough to be intentional while interacting with the objective world around us if that world is changed even ever so slightly by our intentional actions.

So what does all this have to do with me and my cancer? After all, I am sitting here writing about me and my cancer because, especially as I recover from major surgery, there is little else for me to do but sit, read, think and write. So here goes a brief explanation.

If ontology is not primary, what then is? In Levinas’s world, ontology takes a back seat to ethics. Yet, an ontological announcement is the critical starting point of all of ethical behavior. That announcement, “Here I Am!” is made by the self to the other (person) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation. It is a bold statement, allowing for the other to respond or not, something that is in the sole control of the other and not the self. Any response from the other is a call to action in which the self becomes available for the other, becomes responsible for the other, by embracing the differences presented by the other to the self. In short, as an aware self, my obligation is to make myself present, wait for a response that may never come, but when it does I am obligated to act for the benefit of the other even to the extent that I may not be benefited by my actions.

I may, for example, see another person drowning. If I am truly present for the benefit of the other, the call to save the person drowning is absolute and I must act even if, in the process of saving the drowning person I drown myself. Now, most ethical choices are not so extreme as to cause one’s loss of one’s own life, but, Levinas’s point is that the obligation extends beyond the self encompassing the selfless.

As I now am facing the objective world as a likely survivor of prostate cancer, I am clearly present in a way I never thought possible prior to this diagnosis. I still do not know if I am completely clear of disease; this will be answered either Wednesday or Thursday. What I do know, however, is that the original diagnosis provided me with a powerful lens with which to look at the objective world. One of the benefits of hearing a diagnosis of cancer is the ability to make the ethical choice to look at the objective world selflessly. Whether or not I am currently cancer free doesn’t much change that point of view. I am now present, Here I Am! I have the ability to reach out in a new and positive way to other prostate cancer, or any cancer patient if, and only if, they join me in this conversation. I have created the proximate space, the invitation to join me in working toward something positive, not necessarily a positive outcome of the disease, rather a lived experience that is both ethical and positive. The ontological announcement provides the pathway to an ethical life and for that I am most grateful.

From the Hospital

Calm Waters Photo credit: Roger Passman

Calm Waters

Surgery was performed yesterday, early in the morning. By the time I was introduced to my room, it was right around 6:00 PM. It seems I couldn’t be released from recovery until they had a room cleaned for me to occupy. This added about a 3 hour extension in recovery, a wait I didn’t mind for two reasons. First, I don’t recall to much of my stay in recovery because I slept most of the time. More importantly, my urologist found me in a moment of lucidity in recovery and told me that surgery went well and that it appears that he got everything. That news caused my blood pressure to drop into a normal range. It is amazing how stress effects one’s life.

While the news is quite good, I am not yet out of the woods. For the next two years I will be asked to submit to CAT scans four times a year, the next two years I will be asked to submit to CAT scans twice a year and thereafter one per year. Somewhere in the back of my mind, prostate cancer will always be with me.

I will be spending a second night in the hospital mainly because I am experiencing extraordinary pains deep in my shoulders from the carbon dioxide gas they push into the abdomen to allow the robot to see what is going on. It only effects me when I am walking in the corridor and it takes quite some time to go away. But even this pain cannot take away from the news that I am currently cancer free.

I need some time to process all this, deal with the post-operative side-effects and add the outcome to my gratitude list. I couldn’t have asked for a better result.

The Day Before Surgery…Embracing Chaos


Chaos (Art Credit: Roger Passman)

This morning I woke up with a sense of dread. This afternoon I am obligated to force some 32 pills down my throat over a period of about one hour in order to begin the process of cleansing my colon. Then later in the evening I have to do it all over again albeit with about half the number of pills. As I write this, I can only speculate about how I will be effected, how long I will be doubled over with pain as my colon empties not once but twice. Of course, I waited until the very last minute to read the pharmacy blurb that comes with prescriptions as I recounted in an earlier post. I am happy to report that the matter has been settled and that a replacement was found and that is that. It still took an additional phone call to the urologists office to get things settled. I really dislike dealing with bureaucracies of any sort.

Of course, I must still anticipate a phone call from the hospital telling me when to arrive tomorrow. I am hoping for an early morning appointment with the DaVinci robot but there is simply no guarantee as to when I will be scheduled.

I am finding it very difficult to stay focused. I want to read a bit today but I can’t get through more than one or two pages when my mind begins to wander off into somewhere where I choose not to be. The simple truth is that I am completely stressed out just waiting around.

Now I can be quite manic about this condition by acknowledging the situation as being rather abnormal and let it consume me. Or, on the other hand, I can choose to simply stoically accept that once in a while chaos creeps into one’s head and it simply won’t go away so embrace it and let it be. The simple truth is that, while I have had surgeries in the past, each one presents a set of unknowns that cannot be accounted for. I think the worst of those conditions is the interminable waiting within a space that is anything but proximate. There is a scientific distancing separating the patient from those servicing the patient in order for the staff and surgeons to maintain a professional distance yet it is precisely that distance that makes the waiting feel unnatural.

Waiting in proximate space is not at all stressful. Waiting for the other to respond to that announcement of “Here I Am!” is quite different than waiting for a call to be somewhere of bureaucratic choosing. The former is a space created by the self in anticipation of being of service while the latter is a space created by separation leading to the anticipation of simply waiting as if in free fall. Proximity is created by the former while distance is created by the latter.

So here is what I decided to do. I am going to take a nap, sleep until it is time to stuff those poop pills down my throat with gallons of water and then, tonight when I finish round two, go back to sleep until it is time to get up to go to the hospital. It is a simple solution with very few drawbacks. At least I won’t have to think about the distance.

Learning to “Think in Jewish”


Infant (Photo Credit: Roger Passman)

Later this morning my wife and I are going to an open house at the Chabad of Elgin and Hoffman Estates. The rabbi and his wife are celebrating the birth of their new daughter with the community they are building. I am looking forward to this event.

So what is an atheist Jew doing spending time with a Hasidic rabbi and his family? Funny you should ask. In this post I’ll try to explain, if not for you, for myself. Two reasons jump out to me. The first is that Rabbi Mendel is a meaningful example of living the fundamental ethical obligation, living a life of service without reservation. Secondly, and this is quite a selfish reason, I will be studying Jewish texts with Rabbi Mendel in order to better learn how to “think in Jewish.” Let me elaborate.

The Fundamental Ethical Obligation

About six months ago, Rabbi Mendel and his wife and infant son packed up and left Ohio for Elgin, Illinois. He was commanded to leave his father’s home, much like Abraham was commanded to leave his father’s home, and go to a land where he would build a Jewish community. With only a few dollars to his name and a donation of a house and some land upon which to build, he and his family set out on this great adventure. Arriving in Elgin, Rabbi Mendel announced to anyone who would listen, Here I Am! without knowing anyone there, establishing a proximate space and he waited. His announcement is made (it is an announcement made in this very moment without interruption) without reservation and without expectation of reciprocation, yet people hear it and they come.

I met Rabbi Mendel about a month ago. I explained to him that I do not believe in god, that I was raised Jewish but I rejected the religious aspect of my life. While I still acknowledge my Jewishness, I do not chose to perform the tasks required of the religion. I explained that my interest was to learn to “Think in Jewish.” I already know how to “think in Greek” the logical discourse that the West took from Athens and made its own but because of the influence of Emmanuel Levinas and his ability to synthesize thinking in Jewish and thinking in Greek, I wanted to develop a competence in “Thinking in Jewish.”

I responded, reciprocated if you will, to Rabbi Mendel’s open invitation and, in spite of the fact that I did not absolutely fit his Hasidic mold, I was embraced. That’s right, my difference was and is embraced by this man from Ohio who left his father’s house and set out, like Abraham, to find his own way. The fundamental ethical obligation to be responsible for the welfare of the other sets up the obligation to embrace the other as one finds him or her; to embrace difference without reservation. Certainly, this obligation is part of the lived-experience of Rabbi Mendel. It provides me with a living model of the ethical experience, one that reaches well beyond the theoretical.

Thinking in Jewish

In graduate school I was trained to think in a logical, deliberate manner, to think in the language of philosophers, to think in Greek. During my academic career that thinking served me well. I published academic papers, wrote a book that was published, presented academic papers internationally and influenced the lives of many of my undergraduate and graduate students as well as the lives of many of my middle school students before I entered post-secondary education.

Then I discovered Levinas’s work which led me to deconstruction and a different way of thinking. Somewhere along the line I decided that if I were to become competent as a complete thinker, I needed to learn to “Think in Jewish” as well as Greek. I tried reading Jewish texts without a teacher and found that, while there is a logic to the approach, that logic is not completely clear to me. Like deconstruction, a method that concentrates on language use, the sages of the Talmud uncover meaning through concentrating on language, sometimes on single words and sometimes on single letters within words. How words are pronounced also creeps into the logic of the Talmud (Hebrew and Aramaic being vowel-less written languages making pronounceation a matter of interpretation).

Without a competent teacher, one may uncover the methodology for reading these texts but it is a difficult chore. For quite selfish reasons, therefore, I sought out a competent Talmudic scholar to help me understand how to “Think in Jewish.” When I told Rabbi Mendel of my reason for wanting to “Think in Jewish” he stood ready to help me in my studies.

So there you have it. A true model for the ethical life I know in theory and someone, because of his commitment to what I call the fundamental ethical obligation (thanks to Hillary Putnam), is willing to help me learn how to “Think in Jewish.” What more could one ask for except to be able to celebrate a new life on this beautiful Sunday morning.

What Have I Got To Lose?

Meditation Spot

Meditation Spot (Photo Credit: Roger Passman)

As the day of surgery comes ever closer I find myself reflecting on a few ideas that make this whole experience with cancer remarkably peaceful. Sure there is some stress; it would hardly be normal to approach a major operation with some potentially life changing side effects without some anxiety but that is not the peace I am referring to. I suppose the best way to describe this experience is a strangely interesting connection to the alterity of the absolutely infinite other awaiting me.

In part, this experience is guided by the unquestioned fact that there can be no substitute for me in this experience. The surgery, facing cancer, an eerie exposure to the infinite is mine and mine alone. While I have others who love and care for me, my experience is singular and unconditional. This very moment, as I write this, the absolute interiority of this journey of mine is unconditionally. I am presented with a continuum of choices ranging from denial to acceptance. To steal a line from “Flight,” the new Denzel Washington film, with a slight adaptation, “I have used up my allotment of denial.” Acceptance, on the other hand, means thinking in terms of the worst possible outcome, accepting that outcome, and working to achieve a better one. The worst possible outcome, in this particular case, is, quite simply, death. I must accept that possibility but I also must work to achieve a better outcome.

I am also learning that if I approach this very moment as if it is a new opportunity for a re-beginning, that this very moment allows me to open a door to a completely new beginning, I am, in fact, acting in concert with the exteriority of the absolute other. On this measure, I find myself seeking a mirror of that absolute other in the face of the other, in my basic human relationships. I measure that connection by my actions and how those actions are embracing of the exteriority of the other; by how I respond to difference. Do I make myself available through my desire to create proximate space or do I shirk from that ethical obligation because I am wrapped up in myself.

Finally, I can measure just how my own experience brings out all of those things for which I am grateful. Waking up, brushing my teeth, eating meals, playing with my dogs, talking with my wife, having breakfast with my family these are the things I am grateful for. I find the little things to be more important than politics, religion or anything else that is outside of my control. Not that I can control the little things however I do have some choices with those things for which I make a decision or two. All of those little things add up to a lived-experience that is uniquely my own, that, while parts are shared with others, much is more private than public. I believe that making some of that private experience public is at the core of understanding the mirror of the infinite that is contained in the face of the other. I’ll have to come back to this later because I am not sure how to work it out quite yet. I think of this as a note to myself to return when I can.

In the final analysis, what I have to lose is the existential lived-experience. On the other hand, I have the absolute potential to gain entrance to the absolute infinity that only I can enter. I don’t know if that is a fair trade but I do know that it is inevitable. I do what I can to postpone the inevitable.

Research Accomplishments – Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF)

I don’t know about you but I found this interesting.  Clearly some things to speak to my urologist about in the coming weeks. Why not take a look for yourself and see if you find anything interesting there.

Research Accomplishments – Prostate Cancer Foundation (PCF).

To the Pain

Thanksgiving oven

Thanksgiving oven (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The day before Thanksgiving and seven days before surgery. This is the day I am instructed to eliminate blood thinners and all NSAIDs from my daily regimen. Substituting Tylenol for Naproxin is like replacing wine with water; it just isn’t the same no matter how you slice it. I ache all over and I am not through the first day.

I don’t think that I would feel as badly if it weren’t for the fact that I am preparing food for 22 people. Sure they will all bring a dish or two but I prepare the soup, traditionally a squash/apple or squash/pear soup, this year it is squash/apple with honey and it tastes divine. But the backbreaking work of preparing soup for 22 is not made any easier with a pain reliever that is simply not up to the task.

I also cooked two turkeys (one is still in the oven), a pumpkin pie, a braised brussel sprout and cheese dish and chopped liver. I am simply exhausted.

What interests me, however, is not that I am in pain or that I worked hard today. What interest me is the fact that while cooking I felt connected, in the zone, focused on the performance of the task at hand. This is living in this very moment, a practice I am continuing to perfect.

I still have some apprehension about the surgical procedure that I am facing a week from today but I think that is perfectly normal. I don’t think of it often but I would be outright lying if I said it didn’t pop up every once in a while. What I am focusing on: reading, learning something new, a new way of thinking about something is a powerful block. Of course, as the day of surgery comes closer there are any number of things that serve as a constant reminder that the robot is just around the corner. More about that later but for now just think of it as the anticipation of emptying the vessel.

When all is said and done, I remain quite positive at this time. I don’t expect that to change any time soon.

Approaching Thanksgiving

Updated scene of Anakin Skywalker, Yoda and Ob...

May the Force Be With You (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

My father’s diagnosis of squamish cell carcinoma of the lung in 1977 coincided with the release of Episode IV of the Star Wars movies, the original Lucas film. On the night before his scheduled lung surgery my mother and father went out for BBQ ribs and a movie. They went to see Star Wars. Both my mother and father found the whole idea of “the force” compelling. The film was released in late May of 1977. When the surgeon came to talk to the family after the operation he was not too very encouraging. “Go home and put your affairs in order,” he cautioned.

We did not expect my father to be alive for the Thanksgiving of 1977 yet when the fourth Thursday in November rolled around, there he was, quite alive and not ready to give up. Apparently the Force was with him! I learned a powerful lesson 35 Thanksgivings ago; never give up and be thankful for this very moment of life.

As the first Thanksgiving after my own diagnosis of adenocarcinoma of the prostate, I have been reflecting on those many years ago when, as a son, I experienced my first real experience with cancer. Much earlier, around my 14th or 15th year my grandmother died of colon cancer, but, while we knew grandma was ill the whole thing was hush-hush. Not until my father developed lung cancer was there anything like a recognition of the effects of this disease.

At the Thanksgiving table in 1977, my mother, in tears, expressed the simple idea that until this very moment, Thanksgiving was just a time to eat turkey and be stuffed. At that very moment, her deeply felt thanks was clear and unequivocal.

Flash forward 34 years to last Thanksgiving. My wife and I have hosted the family for the past 20 years. At the table, before we began to eat, my oldest grand-niece, my sisters grand-daughter, Ellie, all of 5-1/2 years old, decided it would be a good idea that everyone at the table tell everyone else exactly what they were thankful for. We all did. I thought at the time that this would be a grand tradition to continue for many years to come.

This Thanksgiving, we have expanded from a small family group of around 10 people to a host of folks (24 at last count). I will ask Ellie to ask people to talk a little about what they are thankful for and then go around the several tables, each in turn. When my turn comes…well I don’t think I’ll tell here because then people at the table won’t need to listen to me. Suffice it to say that as this Thanksgiving approaches I am thankful for early detection, for the diligence of my internist, and for the thoughts of so many people offering their support as I face the coming ordeal. This year Thanksgiving takes on an entirely different meaning.

Traces of This Very Moment

Shadow Rays (b&w)

Shadow Rays (b&w) (Photo credit: spodzone)

About a week has past since I took off my watch (I’ve lost track of time) in order to remind myself to spend more time focusing on this very moment of living; for showing up for life. For the first two days I found myself taking a peek at my bare left wrist; habits, it seems, are hard to break. Over the following few days, however, the frequency of sneaking a peek at my wrist diminished until yesterday when I noticed at the end of the day that I wasn’t looking at all. The simple idea that removing one ubiquitous reminder of linear time could remove the desire to actually know what time it is could actually happen quickly astonishes me.

Most of my life, especially since I entered kindergarten, was neatly tied to the clock. I had to get up and out of bed at a time certain in order to do all the things one does in order to arrive at school on time. The school day ran on a schedule with weird bell times; in high school class periods ran for 43 minutes, add 5 minutes for passing time and do that nine times each and every day…well you get my point. Because I was in school for a total of 27 or 28 years (from kindergarten through graduate school and a terminal degree (Ed.D.)) and because I spent the vast majority of my working life as a teacher and then as a professor, everything was driven by a calendar and a clock; sometimes it felt like a train schedule. One of my academic interests turned on the ethical meaning of time; how time itself is elusive, a simulacrum of the real yet without substance or space to give it form. Inspired by postmodern thinkers like Levinas, Derrida, Foucault and Heidegger, the theoretical question of time was something I pondered.

In retirement I learned a great deal about time and life; I could not help but put theory into practice. One of the things I retired to was, or more precisely, is making photographic images. The very act of making a photograph is the closest approximation to this very moment as one can ever come. A photographic image is most often captured in fractions of seconds freezing a particular moment in linear time that can never be captured again. A photographic image is, in effect, a simulacrum of the infinitely brief moment of the here and now. As I made images I began to think about how the photograph is, in fact, an historical artifact of the very moment the image was made.

Capturing a frozen moment in time is, at some level, a reduction of time and space into a single tangible trace of that which once was but is no more. The photographic image has the ability to squeeze four dimensions into two by stopping the moment and then flattening the image into a two dimensional plane, one which is not permitted to ever expand to its original magesty; a singular reminder of an unrepeatable moment. The image is a preserved, two-dimensional approximation of the very moment of capture; one that can not only be experienced by another but can act as a bridge to memory, to traces of experience remembered by a viewer of an image. The image itself is an artifact, a trace of that moment that always already happened.

So what does this have to do with me and my cancer? Only this…As I think about releasing myself from the trappings of linear time, time governed by calendars and clocks, I begin to immerse myself in the stream of moments strung together as if pearls snatched from the insides of an oyster are strung to decorate a neck. There is a string of moments that decorate my life, a life that I barely remember except as a string of traces, of memories, some vivid, others hidden away only to sneak up from time to time to remind me of imperfections. The traces of my memories are but whisps of the always already past moment, the moment of my personal exposure to the universe in which I reside.

Through a conscious act of releasing myself from the physical trappings of time, a discarding of the watch on my wrist, I am brought closer to the proximity of this very moment, the always already past moment of existence. Additionally, without the necessity of worrying about some possible future, my concentration on the now leaves me open to encounter the other, to be of service through proximity with the other. With proximity comes a terrible responsibility (not terrible in a negative sense, rather in a respectful yet difficult undertaking), the responsibility for the other. Ethical obligations force me to turn outward, to approach the other without reservations and without expectations for reciprocity, to be of service. Proximity is external to the self leaving little room for self-pity or focusing toward the interiority of the self.

Living in the proximate moment relieves one of the necessity to obsess about the future. It is enough to proceed forward in time while leaving traces of oneself behind. It is that ethical life I choose to live; looking outward rather than isolating inwardly. Being of service for others is the absolute key to living an ethical life. I learned this long ago from a dear friend, Lenny Stark; it is a fresh today as it was when I first learned this gem. It is that ethical obligation that carries me through these difficult times.



Meditation (Photo credit: Moyan Brenn BE BACK on 10th OCT)

These days I find myself facing unexpected challenges. The apprehension accompanying a diagnosis of cancer is, to say the very least, something I am unaccustomed to. The biggest challenge I face with regard to the waiting for surgery is one of waiting, of sitting quietly and simply listening to the silence. I find that my mind wanders away from the clarity of focus, from the silence of the universe that I am more or less accustomed to.

In addition, there are challenges that accompany my almost daily dealing with my medical team and the sense that one hand doesn’t actually know what the other is doing. Contradictory directions, pharmacy rules and the overall apprehension that accompanies the run-up to surgery interferes with my otherwise calm, rational demeanor.

I’ve written this before but I think it stands repetition; I am no stranger to surgery! I have two titanium hips, a titanium back and now a titanium left knee. In each of these cases, however, I was in desperate pain prior to surgery creating a condition in which surgery was actually anticipated. I expected a “cure” from the pain that was a constant reminder that I had no cartilage in my hips and knee and a spinal column that was shrinking due to calcium deposits causing a severe stenosis. After the first hip surgery, I could anticipate a recovery that would leave me pain free.

Not so with this surgical procedure. I have absolutely no pain, no symptoms at all. I will enter the hospital feeling just fine and will wake up with some degree of discomfort, how much pain I have no way of anticipating. There are also two potential side effects of this procedure that I must admit scare me. While robotic surgery is less invasive than other potential procedures, it still comes with risks of erectile dysfunction and incontinence. But with a Gleason score of 4+4, a PSA of 23 and no metastasis I have little choice but to get holes poked in my belly and get the cancer removed.  But I’ll go into the hospital feeling fine and wake up in pain.

My solution to these and other challenges is to do what I know how to do. I meditate for longer periods of time, just sitting quietly and listening to the silence of the universe. I have taken to measuring my blood pressure before and after meditation and I record a ten point dip in pressures post meditation. I am not surprised. Sitting quietly helps clear my mind of the hamsters running through my head that want me to expect the worst possible outcome. After 45 minutes to an hour my mind is clear and I am better able to face the real challenges of the day. Just doing the next right thing, that which is right before me at this very moment, that which must be done right now. I am also better prepared to understand and, thereby, separate that which is urgent and that which is not.

At this very moment I am headed to the gym in my basement to strengthen my knee, ride the stationary bike and see if I can’t drop around 12 to 20 pounds.

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