Why I Told the World I Was Living With Cancer
Photo: Jayden Malady

Why I Told the World I Was Living With Cancer

It was as scary as coming out as gay more than 30 years ago — and equally empowering.

On April 5 of 2023 , I received life-altering news, some of which I am still processing. I was diagnosed with stage 1 prostate cancer. It was caught very early, and my prognosis is excellent. I am fine—as you can see in the pic my husband took last week of me with our Yorkie, Chip. Despite the psychological effect of my diagnosis, there have been no physical ramifications. I'm incredibly lucky.

I wasn’t planning on sharing this publicly, but after nearly seven months, I’ve realized that by doing so, I might be of service to someone who feels alone in their own cancer journey or someone who thinks it can’t happen to them. I haven’t told many people about my diagnosis, but the support I’ve received has been immensely helpful. I’m especially grateful for the support of people who have gone through/are going through similar challenges.

In the spirit of being preemptively supportive, I wanted to take the opportunity to underscore how important it is to be vigilant about your health and to listen to your body. If you are a man over age 40, don't slack off on your annual check-ups and blood work—and pay attention to your PSA score!

Prostate cancer is something more than half of all men will harbor at some point if they live long enough, but when you're relatively young (yes, according to my urologist, I'm still relatively young), being watchful can determine the extent of prostate cancer's physical effects and the quality of the second half of your life.

End of public service announcement. Be well and be good to yourself.

Yesterday, I did what will probably be the scariest thing I’ll do this year: I came out on Facebook as a person living with cancer via the post above. To recap, on April 5, 2023, I was told I have prostate cancer. The news didn’t floor me. It came after months of appointments with my urologist, multiple PSA tests, and, finally, a very uncomfortable and bloody biopsy.

In my entire adult life, I have never felt as vulnerable as I did lying there in the fetal position waiting for a vicious-looking needle to inject me in my anus 12 times. My urologist and his assistant tried to detract me from the physical and emotional discomfort during the procedure with mindless small talk, but it remains the darkest hour of this journey by far, so far.

I can’t say I was completely devastated upon receiving the bad news a week later (months of preparation definitely softened the blow, even though my urologist had assured me his “level of suspicion was low”), but my heart did drop a little. It dipped a bit further as I started sharing the news: First, I told my husband, then the rest of my family, and then my best friend. I slowly opened up to a small circle of friends and colleagues, including my boss, who was incredibly supportive, as were the four other co-workers in whom I confided. One of them told me about his own experience with cancer, which provided one of the biggest boosts anyone gave me over the course of those first six months. He made me feel less alone at work.

I told a few of my good friends who I knew had gone through their own experiences with cancer. One of them said it’s a “shitty club to be part of,” and while I agreed at the time, I’m not so sure I agree now. If I had my choice, I probably would have joined a book club instead (and if you know me, you know that is something I would never ever willingly do), but I’ve had time to accept that I’m on a lifelong journey that will forever change me, hopefully for the better.

Related: Confessions of a Nomadic Hypochondriac

The months after the diagnosis were followed by multiple doctor’s appointments for check-ups and second and third opinions. My regular urologist, who said my cancer was low-grade and slow-moving — so much so that they call it “not cancer” — recommended an MRI to determine if there were higher-grade cancer cells in my prostate or if it had metastasized to other parts of my body.

The MRI found that my cancer had not spread, but it detected two “suspicious” spots on my prostate. The biopsy had tested only 12 tissue samples, which is why an MRI was recommended once the prostate healed from the invasive biopsy. For the first time since my diagnosis six weeks earlier, I freaked out.

My doctor remained calm and told me not to overthink it. Didn’t he realize he was dealing with an extreme, hopeless hypochondriac? Of course, I was going to overthink it. I overthink everything, from punctuation to cancer diagnoses.

A second opinion was a must. My appointment with the second urologist was probably my worst doctor’s appointment ever. He made it sound as if I was a walking timebomb. If I didn’t have a life-changing prostatectomy as soon as possible, he insisted, I would be putting my life at risk. He delivered this frightening recommendation as if we were on a football field with 10 seconds left on the clock. Suddenly, I was 9 years old again, and my PE teacher was shouting at me to get over the wall on the obstacle source.

Instead of collapsing in tears as I did in fourth grade, I told off Dr. Feelbad. It was quite the showdown, during which he had the nerve to tell me to “educate myself.” (Later, when I returned to my regular urologist, he told me he had received a call from Dr. Feelbad, who said I had “scared him.”) I felt like Dorothy Zbornak in The Golden Girls two-parter called “Sick and Tired.” As I left Dr. Feelbad’s office, seething, I wondered if he would have spoken to me in such a condescending and dismissive way, telling me to educate myself, if I were White.

Utterly confused by the two wildly different opinions, I booked an appointment with a urologist in Queens for a third opinion. He was recommended to me by a support group that I joined. He was lovely, and his take echoed that of my primary urologist, though he refrained from using words and phrases like “not cancer” and “don’t overthink it.” I would have switched to him permanently if his office wasn’t all the way in Queens. Unlike the second urologist, his opinion clearly wasn’t influenced by the color of money. He said that as happy as he would be to treat me, in order to save me the long trips from Manhattan to his office, he could refer me to a trusted colleague closer to where I live.

Related: We're Sorry You're Unwell. But That's Not Our Problem

In the end, I decided to return to my regular urologist. Despite his overly casual attitude when offering my initial diagnosis, I had developed a good doctor-patient relationship with him over the previous two years, and I believed in his skill. He told me that with prostate cancer, a lot of old-school doctors opt for over-treatment, especially since it will fatten their wallets, but he prefers to take a more conservative approach. Together, we decided to go with what they call “active surveillance.” I will see him every three months and continue to have my PSA levels monitored and have another MRI in six months or so. As long as my PSA levels remain stable and my MRI results are clear (my low grade of prostate cancer — Gleason score: 6 — is not MRI detectable, and those suspicious spots on my first MRI were deemed not-cancer-related upon further inspection), no treatment will be required.

It’s a gutsy approach, but it works for me. At some point, I may require treatment, but it’s also possible that I will live for another 40 years without ever requiring a prostatectomy, or radiation, or any other type of treatment. Initially, when I was first diagnosed, I didn’t think I could possibly live my life knowing my body was harboring cancer, but once I had a few months to gather information, the alternative — a prostatectomy with side-effects that could include incontinence, erectile dysfunction and would prevent me from ever ejaculating again — seemed far more daunting than rolling the dice as long as I can. (My dad is 92, and he has been living with prostate cancer for 25 years, having been treated with radiation and hormone therapy.)

I’m still processing my cancer diagnosis, and although I wasn’t planning on going public with it, the other day while walking our Yorkie, Chip, I started to reconsider. As is often the case on sunny, beautiful days, my future felt so bright, and I wanted to share my positivity with other people. I have witnessed the deterioration of friends and their loved ones due to cancer on Facebook, but what I don’t see as often are positive stories that might actually help others who are going through the same thing or encourage others to listen to their body and be vigilant about their health.

Maybe going public will render me less employable in the future. Maybe people will feel uncomfortable around me or not know what to say to me other than “You got this” platitudes. I hope that isn’t the case. I already feel a sense of relief. I feel lighter than I have since April 5. Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter how the world sees me now in regard to my health. I’ve ceded control over that. I may be part of a shitty club, but at least I don’t have to read Where the Crawdads Sing, unless I want to.

Some of us in this particularly shitty club go on to live longer, beautiful lives. Some of us don’t. But isn’t that how life goes anyway?