At the end of this post I’ll discuss the important exceptions that make the rule. What rule? We proton patients are a happy bunch—maybe even happier than the rest of the general population. This is a non-scientific personal observation based on more than seven years of being a prostate cancer proton patient.
The notion occurred to me after a recent trip to my treatment alma mater, the University of Florida Health Proton Therapy Institute in Jacksonville. I visit UFHPTI several times a year to dine with patients at their Wednesday lunches, to speak at their prostate cancer clinics, and for my own annual checkups.
Jacksonville is a five-hour drive, and as a devout homebody and recluse I am loathe to leave home for any reason. So why repeatedly make the trip? At this point it’s completely optional and routine because thankfully, I’m doing fine. And although I certainly enjoy the company of my Florida oncologist, my friendly local urologist—just a 30-minute drive—is perfectly capable of effectively executing my annual DRE.
So why make the trip? The answer is simple, if not obvious: I like being around happy, upbeat people, and I find them in abundance at UFHPTI.
On the surface, this makes no sense. After all, this facility is populated by patients who without exception have had some very bad news. Who in their right mind can be happy about a cancer diagnosis? I wasn’t, and I’m 100% sure that’s universal.
I like being around happy, upbeat people, and I find them in abundance at UFHPTI.
Then how, under such seemingly dire circumstances, can we be so happy? I have a little insight by virtue of many conversations with others in my shoes. And there’s also the guy who is literally in my shoes. So I’ll speak for myself, and you can if I’m also speaking for you.
I am a member of this group, and a happy guy. This was also true before my cancer diagnosis. Cancer is not the reason I’m happy, but it has undeniably changed my perspective on life.
I have become more aware of the many things to be happy about. This may sound a bit trite, but it is the crux of the matter.
Before cancer I was happy enough, but not particularly focused on that feeling. I was just living my life, day by day, without paying much attention to the big picture. Now, with a recalibrated perspective I am laser-focused on the grander scheme of life. This has not only made me happier, but also more aware of being happy.
Let me tell you why.
I appreciate life more
“You have prostate cancer.” Yikes. Was he talking to me? At that moment, at age 60, I instantly understood—I mean really understood—I could die tomorrow. Or today. Furthermore, I became acutely aware that I not only could, but surely would. This was not new information, but only then did I fully comprehend it.
I also quickly realized I still had no idea whether cancer or something else would eventually cause my inevitable demise, but the new insight lingered. From that day forward there would be a lot less lumbering through life. Without knowing it, I could be in the path of a runaway bus just around the corner, any time, any day. Best to take nothing for granted.
So how does this make me happy? With this insight comes a newly enhanced daily pleasure. I begin and end each day in a comfortable bed with the love of my life at my side, and my loyal canine companion at my feet. I am hyper-aware of their timelines as well as mine, and smile each morning at the sight of them.
This brings me a peaceful contentedness, and makes me happy.
We cancer patients have become intensely aware that as a resident of planet earth, our timeline is finite and of unknown length. Everyone surely knows this, but not everyone “gets it.” Well, we do, and it changes us forever.
I discovered proton therapy
As is the case with many of us, the challenge of cancer turned me into a researcher. And like my proton brothers, I was lucky. I found out about a lesser-known, painless, non-invasive therapy offering a high probability of knocking out my prostate cancer without side effects. I discovered proton therapy.
It was not proton that made me happy. I understood it would not be the elusive magical silver bullet, and as with any therapy, there would be no guarantees. But the way it works made sense to me. So much so that even if years later I were to find myself battling prostate cancer again, I could at least feel confident I had given myself the best shot in the first battle.
Finding proton gave me hope, and even the expectation that I would be okay. Today, seven years later, that vision continues.
I enjoy a unique camaraderie
For most of my life I was a shy, asocial introvert. I wanted to have friends and be a part of a close-knit social group, but it just didn’t come naturally. Instead, I became comfortable enough going socially solo.
We understood each other as no one else could, and with that comes an automatic bond and a unique camaraderie.
In Jacksonville life was different, and the social playing field was more level. Regardless of our path to Jacksonville, we were all in the same boat. We were all at least a little bit scared, as well as thankful and hopeful.
We patients didn’t really have to become friends because we naturally were. We understood each other as no one else could, and with that comes an automatic bond and a unique camaraderie.
It’s a feeling I like, and it still makes me happy.
I have more friends
Ours is a strong, enduring bond. I have many more friends now than before cancer. It’s partly because of this camaraderie, and it’s also because I’ve admittedly become friendlier and somewhat more sociable. I’ve changed.
Some of my proton friends live nearby. In 2013—a couple years after proton—my wife Lucy and I decided quite uncharacteristically to host a little party for local proton people. It was fun, and we have partied every year since.
In 2018, our fifth annual gathering, we had over forty proton guests from near and far. For some, it clearly required some time, effort, and planning to attend. I have asked myself why they made the effort, why many have returned year after year, and why our group of proton partiers has grown.
I believe the answer is this: we want to gather with others who understand us. And we like being around happy people. We miss the uplifting and inspiring companionship experienced during treatment, and this gathering is a chance for another taste of that, if just for a few hours. Our yearly get-together is not a support group, and it’s not educational. It’s just fun and revitalizing.
I don’t sweat the small things
Size is relative. What once seemed large can quickly shrink when placed at the feet of the giant gorilla called cancer. And in an odd and slightly perverse way, I find myself in the gorilla’s debt. It has forced me to focus my attention on the truly large things that really matter.
Many of life’s little annoyances that drove me crazy before, now seem trivial by comparison.
Many of life’s little annoyances that drove me crazy before, now seem trivial by comparison. It’s not that I don’t notice them. I just don’t care so much. A lukewarm meal that should have been served piping hot is … a lukewarm meal, not a life-threatening crisis. A favorite shirt ruined in the laundry by an ink pen I left in its pocket is … a shirt I will remember fondly, not a reason to lose sleep. I have a long list of such things, and I’m sure you have your list, too.
So what matters to me now? If I were to tell you, it would sound preachy, so I won’t. After all, my list is mine, as your list is yours. But since encountering the beast, my frame of reference has changed. Yours probably has, too, and it’s for the better.
Our improved perspective of what’s important in life should make us both happier people.
Perhaps surprisingly, research has shown that happiness is not about wealth or even health. It has more to do with realistic expectations and a positive mindset. Gratitude, exercise, meditation, and random acts of kindness contribute to our happiness. Greater tolerance of others, accepting that which we cannot control, and embracing our imperfect existence as human beings all bring contentment to our lives.
Contentment cannot be contingent upon our next PSA test, the stock market movement, or the weather.
Most importantly, we have given ourselves permission to be happy now because we have grasped the uncertainty of the future. Contentment cannot be contingent upon our next PSA test, the stock market movement, or the weather. If we forever kick our happiness down the road in that manner, it will never be ours. And there is a lot to be happy about today.
The exceptions that make the rule
I acknowledge that some people are not happy, including some who have had neither cancer nor proton therapy. Everyone’s life is a mixed bag, and any of us can easily find plenty to be unhappy about if that’s our focus. I do know some proton patients who are doing quite well, yet are unhappy. I know others who face greater challenges and are nevertheless remarkably content.
What makes the difference? Clearly, our circumstances do not dictate how we feel. It’s how we choose to respond to the hand we’ve been dealt that matters. We can choose to be happy, or not. Some fail to make that choice, while others try, but either can’t or don’t know how. In any case, it’s not cancer, proton, or winning the lottery that will make us happy or not. It’s our choice.
Proton brothers forever
Today I am clearly among the luckiest prostate cancer patients, but my circumstances could change tomorrow. Some of my friends—my proton brothers—have had a tougher time, battling a more advanced or aggressive prostate cancer, enduring multiple treatment modalities, side effects, or recurrence. Yet most of them still smile, laugh, and have a positive outlook.
… regardless of our individual progress in battling the beast, we remain proton brothers.
That group could someday include me. I know it, and they know it. And regardless of our individual progress in battling the beast, we remain proton brothers. We continue to share a bond that cannot be broken, and appreciate each day in a manner unique to us.
Still, I ask myself whether I will continue to be happy when life gives me the next big kick in the pants. I say “when” and not “if” because it—whatever it will be—is inevitable. What if I have a recurrence, or develop some progressive, incurable neurological disease, or lose my eyesight? What if some Bernie Madoff drains my bank account? I like to think I’ll still notice the remaining positive aspects of my life, focus on them, and find contentment.
We are riding atop the gorilla’s head, and from there we have a new view of the world.
None of us is pleased with the bad news part of the deal. But all of us in the fight can nonetheless be happy for much the same reasons.
We discovered proton therapy and found each other. We are riding atop the gorilla’s head, and from there we have a new view of the world. We know what matters and have friends who share that view and understand us.
Such as it is, and in whatever quantity, life is good.
We can all be happy if we choose to be, so let’s have some fun. Let’s party.
What do others say about happiness?
Here are a dozen quotes on that topic. Food for thought. See if you can guess who said what (I’ve included the answers). You will ace the quiz simply by reading the quotes, so relax and enjoy!
Also, please on happiness. Hearing from you will make me even happier.“Folks are usually about as happy as they make their minds up to be.”
“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.”
“Happiness is not something ready made. It comes from your own actions.”
“Whoever is happy will make others happy.”
“Laughter is poison to fear.”
“Happiness is a choice. You can choose to be happy. There’s going to be stress in life, but it’s your choice whether you let it affect you or not.”
“I’ve got nothing to do today but smile.”
“I like money, but it’s never been about the money.”
“The real man smiles in trouble, gathers strength from distress, and grows brave by reflection.”
“True happiness is to enjoy the present, without anxious dependence upon the future, not to amuse ourselves with either hopes or fears but to rest satisfied with what we have, which is sufficient …”
“The greatest discovery of all time is that a person can change his future by merely changing his attitude.”
“Happiness never decreases by being shared.”