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The Survivor Monologues

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JOEL NOWAK, 56, lives in Brooklyn Heights with his wife and has two grown-up sons. Over the past decade, he has been diagnosed with thyroid cancer, prostate cancer (twice), and kidney cancer.

In 1998, I was shaving and noticed a lump under my jaw. My biopsy came back positive for thyroid cancer. I wasn’t too panicked, because I had done some reading about thyroid cancer, and I looked at it as something fairly easy to control. Fortunately, I wasn’t aware that people do die from it. After my surgery, the pathology report came back negative. I was clean.

Then came the second diagnosis. I have a long family history of prostate cancer. One of my blood tests turned up a high PSA count. Again, I wasn’t all that worried. In retrospect, I realize how naïve I was. They cut out the whole prostate. Now I am on a hormonal blockade, which has turned me into a chemical eunuch. I can no longer have an erection. I could sit here with this big porno flick up there, and it’s like, “Okay, who cares?” And this is a cost to my wife. We always did well sexually and we enjoyed each other very much, but she has never complained. She said, “It’s okay. It’s more important to have you.” But a lot of guys and myself, we have trouble buying that.

I had gone five, six years, and I really thought there’s no way I’ll have a recurrence. Then my PSA went back up and I was devastated. I look at this as a death sentence, and it is. There is no cure for recurrent prostate cancer, and it is not a pleasant way to die.

It turns out I also had a large mass in my left kidney. They took out my entire kidney, and the conclusion is that it was primary kidney cancer. Unrelated. I was now a triple guy. As one of my docs said, it’s like I must have been very evil in my former life.

I once asked my oncologist, “How long am I going to live?” He said that if he had to make a guess, I would probably be his patient in five years but not in ten. For me, cancer is everywhere. I assume that every other person I see has cancer. I know that’s not real, but it feels that way. I had an office manager who died of brain cancer about three years ago. The woman I hired to replace her was diagnosed with breast cancer six months ago. My mom died of cancer about a year and a half ago, my father-in-law a little over a year ago. I will tell you this, I learned a very important lesson from someone I saw dying from cancer. Their life had become so bitter. Their last year was spent being angry at everything and everyone. I remember thinking that this is not the way to live.


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