When I was younger, I was terrified to put myself out into the world. The few times when I did, I had a tendency to feel uncomfortable, abdicating the narrative of my own life to people who really had no business being the storytellers.
It took time, heartbreak, healing, and a healthy dose of self-confidence (both earned and given) to finally own who I was, good and bad, warts and all.
Not that I had warts, mind you… at least not the physical ones. But I digress…
This is never more apparent to me than in March, the anniversary of my stage-three testicular cancer diagnosis. Each year during the first week of the third month of the Julian calendar, I get my reminder phone call from my oncologist’s office.
Blood work. Chest X-ray. Testicular ultrasound.
I will never forget my first one. I had just had my port inserted for my impending chemo. As I came to, I was told that I was about to have my bed wheeled into the ultrasound lab to check the lads.
“Ultrasound?” I asked. “Like as in pregnancy ultrasound?”
In my anesthesia-induced haze, I can’t say I remember the physical experience too much. It was basically a red-haired beehive hairdo’d nurse working the wand like a Corvette stick shift through my Netherlands. I also remember the diagnosis: a core on the left side, calcium deposits on the right.
They caught my cancer kinda late, so they’d have to treat it in a different way. I’d have enough chemo to treat Rhode Island, followed by the eviction of Lefty. Hey, sometimes a guy just doesn’t want a roommate.
They would then monitor Righty annually for the rest of my life to make sure he wouldn’t try to kill me like his evil twin.
I get to have this happy little indignity every year? Super!
It’s amazing what cancer treatment does to you, the most astounding to me being its utter ability to give you perspective. When first diagnosed, I simply told people I had cancer. Sadly for me, that answer was never good enough.
“What kind?” they would ask.
Guys would either snicker or wince, usually the latter. Girls would say, “Oh.”
At first, I totally understood both reactions. But as time went on, I realized that not only was I consumed by my embarrassment, but I was also embarrassing others by my blatantly obvious discomfort discussing the matter.
So on the day of my third or fourth diagnosis anniversary, while in the shower as I extra-scrubbed the hinterland in preparation for my impending blitzkrieg of shame, I simply said out loud, “I’m going to own this. I’m not going to be embarrassed anymore.”
It did not help my cause that the entire Visiting Nurses Association was doing a rotation, and were morbidly curious to see something that they hadn’t seen before. There’s nothing quite so vulnerability-inducing as eleven insanely attractive young women staring at you when the only thing staring back at them is your face, your socks, and your sack.
‘You’re doing this in the name of science,’ I kept telling myself…silently.
And do you know what happened? Not one of them laughed. One even said that I had a lot of guts agreeing to let them be present in the room. And then she asked for my number.
Okay, kidding about that last part.
But I came to the realization that it was me that was in control of my embarrassment, and by using that control to quash it, not only was I helping myself, but possibly others who are not yet comfortable about owning one of the most sensitive of maladies a young man can endure, the age this disease seems to target more than most.
Do I still feel a twinge of I really don’t feel like being here each year? Absolutely. I’m human. But the feeling that I get when I hear, “There is no noticeable change, Mr. Duffy” is worth it beyond measure.
And by owning my balltrasound, and in reality, my testicular cancer in general, I’ve figured out a way to help others in the same boat.
I’m just going to lay it all out there and hope the response is as warm as the jelly I have to mop up from down under each year.