Charlotte retiree Eddie Bell identified with the African-American men quoted in a recent Observer article about the disparate impact of prostate cancer on blacks versus whites.
Having been treated for prostate cancer, Bell encourages all men to get the PSA screening test even though it isn’t perfect. But he wrote to me after the article to discuss another aspect of prostate cancer – the potentially serious side effects associated with surgical removal of the prostate gland.
Like many other survivors, Bell struggles with incontinence and impotence. “It changes your life drastically,” he said. “You no longer are the same person.”
Bell, 76, and Wilhelmina, his wife of 54 years, moved to Charlotte in 2013 from New Paltz, N.Y. He had retired in 1994 as assistant vice chancellor for student affairs at the State University of New York. When his PSA score continued to rise and a biopsy found cancer, Bell chose to have surgery, a radical prostatectomy.
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For six weeks after, he had to wear thick pads in his underwear to prevent free-flowing urine from staining his clothes and embarrassing him in public. Bell said he’s sexually active and otherwise healthy, but erectile dysfunction is now a reality.
In a poem called “Aftermath,” he wrote: “The cutting done, the evil rooted out / A void created and naked truth exposed / All must change, a managed physicality / Shifted frame of mind…/ How will new life be? / The surgeon’s knife a two-edged sword / Cuts tissue and emotion / Creates a negative assortment / Maxi-pads, diminished manhood…”
Today, Bell said he wears only thin pads during the day, to be safe. When he learned Kegel exercises to strengthen his pelvic floor muscles, he said he shared a few laughs with his wife and other women. “They say, ‘Welcome to the club.’”
In a poem called “Awaiting Kegel Redemption,” he wrote: “I grow weary waiting for the end to come / The throwing away of bloomer and pad / No longer needed to stop the soil / No longer needed to feel safe, protected from an awful shame…”
In another, he wrote about being grateful six months after surgery for a PSA score close to “double zeroes,” the desired goal. But he grieved the loss of sexual prowess and referred to one of the possible treatments, a penile injection, that has worked for a friend.
“Meanwhile softness still reigns / maybe the needle will help / Manufactured hardness, dry sensations – / new version of manhood left to thrill the soul.”
Finally, in another poem, he wrote : “The mind reverts to what has been / …The steaming reality inserts itself / That less will be more / Life sustained but will it be abundant?”