“It all started with my balls.”
April 11, 2019 1:16 PM   Subscribe

Instead of seeing the urologist, I would now need to see an oncologist. For a few days I comforted myself by pretending that, because of my abiding interest in the mysteries and niceties of Being, I had to see an ontologist. Nobody except one of my fellow Irish novelists thought this was funny.
Instead of shaking all over, I read the newspapers. I listened to the radio. I had my lunch, an essay by Colm Tóibín about getting cancer.
posted by Kattullus (23 comments total) 35 users marked this as a favorite
This gave me chills, I went through the exact same process and thoughts up to the ultrasound, which came back clear. In my case, the technician was a young woman about 8 months pregnant, so awkwardness for everybody. A fascinating look at how my last year could have been rather different.
posted by BeeDo at 1:28 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]

I really liked this piece. Thanks for sharing it.

I will say as a woman who has given birth, I blanched a bit at the part where some medical professional or other expressed empathy for the awkwardness the author must feel at having his bits gelled and scanned and poked. This is not the way ob/gyns appear to think about women. For some reason.
posted by eirias at 1:43 PM on April 11 [36 favorites]

This is a great read. It makes me want to check out his other writing.
posted by showbiz_liz at 1:49 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]

The one novel of his I’ve read is Nora Webster, which I really liked. Brooklyn (which became the film of the same name) is probably his best known work.
posted by Kattullus at 1:57 PM on April 11 [2 favorites]

This is a great read. It makes me want to check out his other writing.

If you’re a fellow, I hope it makes you want to check out your balls, too.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 2:12 PM on April 11 [5 favorites]

I had to see an ontologist. Nobody except one of my fellow Irish novelists thought this was funny.

I think that one's pretty good!
posted by praemunire at 2:31 PM on April 11 [15 favorites]

Beautifully gentle writing.
posted by sallybrown at 2:52 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

love this
posted by Morpeth at 3:29 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

Compelling autobiography.
posted by Oyéah at 4:03 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

I've forwarded this to my brother who is an oncologist. I don't know if he'll appreciate it or if it'll just feel like work to him.
posted by any portmanteau in a storm at 5:34 PM on April 11 [3 favorites]

I can't help but wonder if this had happened to a woman (minus the testicle part, of course) if she would have survived. But of course I do know. It did. She didn't.

This is the story of someone who went to the doctor and was believed, in an environment where medical care is about making people well rather than making money. I wish him well, and wish everyone could receive the level of care he did.
posted by Mr.Encyclopedia at 7:00 PM on April 11 [14 favorites]

This was really lovely.

My sister, who has a masters in Anglo-Irish literature and has excellent taste*, got me hooked on Coim Toibin, I recommend his entire oeuvre!

(*You know this part is true b/c she introduced me to MeFi)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:25 PM on April 11 [5 favorites]

I had testicular cancer 12 years ago. This piece really struck home for me.

Fortunately, when my cancerous testicle was removed, it had not spread to the lymph node or anywhere else, so I was able to choose a course of monitoring instead of chemo or radiation. This article really drove home for me how fortunate I am. I had none of the side effects. The worst I can point to is that I regret my prosthesis -- it feels weird and unnatural but at the time, I was freaked out by the idea of being a "One-Hung Joe".

When I was young and stupid, I would say, "I don't care what cancer I get, as long as it isn't cancer of the balls." In retrospect, I'm beyond fortunate that I got testicular cancer. I'm officially on the "cured" list and I only have a slightly elevated risk for secondary cancers due to the numbers of CT scans I've had over the last ten years.

I'll take that and count my lucky stars.
posted by Big Al 8000 at 8:11 PM on April 11 [9 favorites]

Fantastic essay -- thanks for sharing.
posted by newper at 9:20 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

This is brilliant. That last paragraph really kicked me in the balls.
posted by liminal_shadows at 10:58 PM on April 11 [1 favorite]

Yeah, this is a great essay. I've never read any of his work and this makes me think it would be worth it.

At the same time, I too read the bit about the ultrasound techs being careful and apologising to him for the invasion of his privacy when they took the towel off his bits. His bits that hang outside of his body. I have never had an ultrasound tech show the slightest hint of acknowledgement of how awkward, embarrassing and uncomfortable it is to have the ultrasound wand put inside you and moved around. My GP failed to be able to do my pap smear after repeated, increasingly painful and shame-inducing attempts, because of my size. She did apologise and then, of course, I had to reassure her that it was fine, no problem, she didn't need to feel bad. She referred me to a specialist unit at a hospital - to get a pap smear - but I went back to my previous GP who was able to do it first try with no difficulty.

And I read the bits about a friend of his - a woman, of course - assessing the rubbish tip that his home sounds like and cleaning it up for him. He didn't even have a washing machine. A grown man with no washing machine. Honestly.

Anyway. I digress but while his essay absolutely moved me, and his experience sounds really awful, and his writing is fantastic - it was also a window of insight onto the world of privilege that he inhabits. Cancer for the privileged is clearly a very different thing. And yes, as Kate Beaton writes in the even more compelling article that Mr.Encyclopedia linked above, "How much more is this problem a fact of life for non-binary people, trans people, people of color, people with disabilities? It’s humbling to hear from so many with stories of their own, and distressing to consider the stories we haven’t heard yet."
posted by Athanassiel at 11:48 PM on April 11 [15 favorites]

What a gentle article, so self-compassionate. Timely too. I'll be consulting my oncologist next week, but I'm hoping yesterday's chemo will be my last. Mine was for a few hours every three weeks, nowhere near as toxic and intrusive as the author's so my physicality and emotions haven't dropped as low as his.

That said, I've never felt so drawn to self-harm as I have since starting chemo. I'm safe, talking to people and closely aware that the urge is chemically caused, and that it only happens between say days 7-14, and I won't self-harm. But I'm poisoned, physically toxic, and I subconsciously hate myself for being this way.

Maybe it's part of chemo brain. Chemo brain, for me, means a drop in emotional intelligence: reduced sense of humour, empathy, perceptiveness. Along with general mind blanks. For example, I had to return to the article three times to remember what I wanted to write this actual paragraph about.

Chemo sucks. The author hoped his body would get used to the drugs, and each round would be easier to bear. I thought that if the first session went OK, one would continue as one had begun. Both of us were wrong but I bet we both needed the hope our misconceptions provided.

Like the author, I too wanted to be left alone while doing the treatment, only seeing people when I went out. I finally furnished my lounge with a recliner chair, a sofa, and a television as I knew I'd need somewhere to veg out that was out of bed but away from the sun on my verandah. Hours can go by without notice. He has seagulls, I have flying foxes and butcher birds. I too hope I can write about it when I am removed somewhat from chemo's effects.

I never fully comprehended how traumatic the US health care system might be until I got cancer in Australia. Within an hour of my diagnosis for ovarian cancer I was struck by a momentary joy, a feeling of being nurtured by my national health care system. It felt like my country actually cared, right at a time when I needed all the signs and symbols of love I could foster. And that it cared for every woman in my position the same way because money wasn't involved.

Then I was overcome by a wave of empathetic grief for women in the US who get the same diagnosis and have to deal with the profit-driven bureaucratic barbarism that is US health insurance. And the less resources they have, the bigger struggle they encounter, if they get medical treatment at all. And even then it's not always the amounts of money involved that seem the most onerous, though they obviously are for many people. It's the paperwork in the US: the multiple accounts, the late bills with no details, the fights with insurers over payments, the whole shit-shit show. On top of everything else, that explicit demonstration of capitalism's job of not caring right at a time and place when compassion is needed most ... it appears akin to torture.

Love to all going through chemo, recovering from chemo, and especially to those preparing to go through chemo. If it's any consolation, it gives you great skin.
posted by Thella at 1:08 AM on April 12 [18 favorites]

I'd like to write about my emotional response to this but it's too early, after losing my beloved wife to cancer late last July. I couldn't even finish the essay, but I'm going to try again this evening.

Suffice to say, it's just like what he says.
posted by jpziller at 6:36 AM on April 12 [8 favorites]

God I love Tóibín's gentle, slightly fussy voice. Time to go back and reread him.
posted by libraritarian at 7:21 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

And I read the bits about a friend of his - a woman, of course - assessing the rubbish tip that his home sounds like and cleaning it up for him. He didn't even have a washing machine. A grown man with no washing machine. Honestly.

The one thing that irritated me a little in this essay which I otherwise enjoyed was the combination of the "I vant to be alone" rhetoric with these admissions shortly thereafter. Not that he was not entitled not to want to see people, nor that it's wrong to let people help you with cleaning when you're ill! But you shouldn't project an attitude of managing on your own while at the same time having your female friend over to overhaul your disaster of a flat.
posted by praemunire at 8:09 AM on April 12 [1 favorite]

At about six o’clock in the evening I would feel OK for a while, but by nine or so a real lassitude had set in again. When I decided to go to bed I would find that the decision made no difference. Two hours later I would still be lying on the sofa. I spent the time staring straight ahead. No watching films; no TV; no radio; no books; no magazines or journals. No memories; no thoughts; no plans for the future. Nothing.
Strangely, the thing that strikes me is how similar this sounds to depression.
posted by klanawa at 10:58 AM on April 12 [4 favorites]

"It all started with my balls. I was in Southern California and my right ball was slightly sore.
Nearly 25 years ago I had a bit of testicular cancer and that's exactly how it began. Coming back from a bike ride, the pain was suddenly so excruciating it almost knocked me down. But I made it home—oddly, I also once biked home with a broken collar bone—and after a sleepless night, I saw a doctor and I was told that he wanted to do surgery the next day. My very first thought was not "Am I going to die?" it was "Shit, how am I going to pay for this?"

That afternoon, in the throes of agonizing ball pain, I saw a Edvard Munch exhibit and then the next morning the doctor removed one malignant testicle and that was that. I was extraordinarily fortunate that it was stopped there and I've only been even luckier since. I took a about a month to recuperate—during which time I slept a lot and read Robinson Crusoe, the Jungle Books, and a half dozen or so of the Lang Fairy Books. I think it was one of the most peaceful periods of my life. At the time I liked to say that my only regret was that I didn't try harder to persuade the doctor to take them both. Those malignant little fuckers have never given me anything but grief.

(Of the several Tóibín novels I've read, The Master remains my favorite.)
posted by octobersurprise at 11:12 AM on April 12 [3 favorites]

I've had several friends survive cancer now:
One was the workaholic mom of my daughter's best friend- I think she had stage 2 breast cancer and took about 3 days in total off work. I've never seen anyone kick cancer so hard and not let it slow them down. Chemo, hair loss, whatever - bed rest? Hell no! She had engineering to do!

My best friend in college lost his junior year to testicular cancer. We were to graduate together, but it took him an extra three.

The album "Little Things are Everything" by Smart Brown Handbag is mostly about a band member having and surviving cancer, but only two songs are explicit about it.

I lost a favorite co-worker to Stage 5 cancer last year. She basically worked until her last day and we only talked on the phone so most of us had no idea what she was going through. Not the life I'd choose, but it was what she wanted, so good on her.

This was a good read. The ways we each take on what can be a death sentence is such an eye into the differing human condition.
posted by The_Vegetables at 3:33 PM on April 12 [2 favorites]

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