With great trepidation I entered the old three-story, flat-roofed brick building on the hospital grounds. Originally built as a nurses’ residence in the mid-twenties, the building now served as hospital administrative offices and a large lecture hall in what must have been an auditorium. As I walked down a narrow hallway towards the lecture hall, I saw an older gentleman who was standing behind a table that had a very large tray filled with name tags laid out in alphabetical order. As I reached the table the friendly older gentleman asked politely, “Welcome to the Prostate Support Group. Are you new?”
I thought to myself that my newness must be blatantly obvious to anyone watching me step cautiously and gingerly through the introductory process of my first prostate-cancer, support-group meeting. I was instructed to write my full name on a name-tag and to head over to the “newcomers” table just inside the lecture hall, to provide additional information, including my reason for being there.
As I hung the name-tag around my neck and walked through the entrance to the lecture hall, I observed several other older men standing around the entrance-way nodding encouragingly at me. Behind them and immediately inside the lecture hall sat another older gentleman at the newcomers’ table who smiled nervously and asked me to complete a sign-in sheet with personal information about my relationship with prostate cancer: was I recently diagnosed, receiving treatment, was I in the post-treatment phase of my journey, or, was I perhaps a family member or friend of someone “living with prostate cancer?”
After completing the information and thanking the older gentleman, I was free of the protocols for entry and stepped further into the lecture hall. I perused the entire room, taking in all the visible information I would routinely gather: the layout of the room, number of chairs, alternate exits, placement of the speaker’s podium, size and location of the presentation screen, and the distribution of empty seats – there were seats for about sixty people but at least half were empty. I also took a closer look at the other meeting attendees.
The atmosphere in the room was thick and heavy with apprehension. Many of the smiles and nods exchanged seemed hesitant and cautious of what was expected. Other attendees noticeably went out of their way to avoid all contact with others. There seemed to be a twinge of sadness in the air. Let’s face it, I thought, it’s a foregone conclusion that each man in this room is here because he has cancer. The only unknown is the stage of each man’s cancer.
As I assessed each and every male in the room, I realized I was looking at a sea of grey. “The Grey Army” was alive and well (as far as I could tell without checking their vitals), all present and accounted for within that lecture hall. My heart sank. Oh my God, I thought. Not only do I have to engage in a battle with prostate cancer (which for the most part I was prepared to take on), but also I get to age twenty years in the blink of an eye.
I felt numb, my head and shoulders slumped forward, the wind sucked out of my lungs. It was if I’d shrunk in height by five inches. Suddenly I was a man facing multiple attackers, and all I could do was recoil into my shell; I turtled.
I contemplated shuffling towards an innocuous seat in the middle of the room where I might disappear in the crowd; but before I could take more than two steps forward a high-pitched voice from across the room shrieked:
My head snapped up to the one o’clock position towards an old man who was glaring directly at me with furious eyes. His shriek had halted all chatter in the room and every other head had also snapped to attention towards the old man. Given that it appeared that he had directed his outcry at me, I stepped forward a few paces to get within a comfortable distance of my antagonist (but just out of striking distance) and quietly said, “Yes Sir, what can I do for you?”
The veins on his forehead and his neck stood out prominently, his eyes unblinking and pupils wide like a cat preparing to pounce on its prey. He hissed, “You shouldn’t be here. You’re too young!”
He inhaled, catching his breath, then exhaled and said in a softer, resigned voice: “You’re too young to be here.”
As I allowed his words to be absorbed deeply into my being, I thought,
Absolutely goddamn right…
I shouldn’t be here. This is all wrong, some kind of mistake, a bad episode from the Twilight Zone. After a long pause, I could only say, “I wish I didn’t have to be here.” I forced a grin, nodded my head and turned away to take my seat. Neither of us had anything more to say.
I could only assume the reason for the old man’s actions. They seemed to imply that as much as he could rationalize the reality of his own prostate cancer, he found it hard to accept a much younger man’s affliction with the disease.
As I took my seat and regained my composure, I noticed I was clutching a mitt full of paper handouts that the nice team of older gentlemen had handed to me at several stages of my seemingly endless trek from the entrance of the hall to my seat. I shuffled through the handouts not paying attention to their contents. I was more interested in scanning the audience to look more closely at the other participants and to confirm my initial conclusion – I was indeed the youngest person in the room.
If all you can do is crawl, start crawling.” – Rumi
Begbie Hall – Victoria Heritage Foundation
This post is an excerpt from the upcoming book about a younger mans experience with prostate cancer,
titled “Hey You!!! You’re Too Young to be Here!!!”