The small c and the big robot

Few of you should care but for those who do, here’s a chronicle of my experience in robotic surgery for prostate cancer. I post it here mainly for the ongoing Google value to those who follow me into the O.R.

da-vinci-robotAt 9a Monday, I walked into the bright operating room at Sloan Kettering and faced the robot. Pictures of it on the manufacturer’s web site make it look small, like something that might screw in radio knobs on a Cooper Mini: friendly. In person, the robot is huge, like something Sigourney Weaver would defeat in space: imposing. I saluted it and backed away. Its arms stood at ease, each covered in plastic to maintain its sterility. I also saluted the surgeon, Dr. Raul Parra, who works many feet away at a console that gives him a video view inside me – much magnified – and delicate control of the five arms poking inside my belly. They also pump me up with CO2 to give the robot room to work and the doctor room to see. One friend made reference to me becoming a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon and envisioned shooting me down over Broadway.

The waiting-room nurse told my wife that they put patients under anesthesia an hour before surgery begins because that’s how long it takes to set up the robot and patients tended to get a little freaked seeing an alien beast assembled over them, ready to drill in. It’s one matter to be scared of needles, another to stare at a robotic arm with electric scissors on the end.

While he’s inside, the surgeon tries to peel back and preserve the nerves that encase the prostate because they’re the ones that enable erections. In some proportion of cases, the patients get that magic talent back; in some cases, not. That’s why doctors now prescribe Viagra before and after (“use it or lose it,” another doctor said to me – a new answer to, “not tonight, dear, I have a headache”). The surgeon takes out the seminal vesicles, which means that orgasms, when and if they return, are no longer messy. Out go a few lymph nodes. And, of course, out goes the prostate and a piece of the urethra with it. That’s why men also have problems with continence. “We have to re-potty-train you,” said my doctor’s nurse.

After surgery, the doctor said my cancer appeared to be contained to the prostate. That’s the key question. If it is, then my PSA – which was rising and led to the discovery of my cancer – should fall to nil. If it isn’t contained, then the cancer can spread to the bones (that’s what killed my grandfather) and then treatment could include radiation and hormones (to cut off the testosterone that feeds prostate cancer).

When I woke up in full morphine-induced stupidity, I had five small holes in me – the largest just big enough to bring out the prostate – and two drains, one in my side (which was taken out before I left the hospital – a very eerie experience, having a foot-long french drain pulled out of your belly), the other where I had been dreading it. When I scheduled surgery, the nurse volunteered to show me a Foley catheter. I declined. Funny, she said, everybody does. In my mind’s eye, I saw a thin stick up my dick and that was bad enough. But I woke up to find a garden hose coming out of my penis (the subject of one of my earliest tweets once I got my iPhone and lucidity back). As the Howard Stern Show’s Gary Dell’Abate told me about his stent up there, the problem isn’t so much pain as feeling things move where they shouldn’t.

I wrote a Guardian column about choosing to reveal my cancer on my blog and the benefits that come from it. There’s no greater symbol of giving up privacy and embracing publicness, I think, than writing about one’s penis, especially when it malfunctions. But in the hospital, I lost every last vestige of modesty. There’s just no point. Nurses need to fix things there and give instruction on how to cope with the catheter and you are completely, utterly exposed. There’s a young, female nurse, speaking at eye-level to my penis telling me what to do with it as it sits in extreme repose. Think Seinfeld’s shrinkage episode; cold water and catheters have the same effect. By Tuesday, my last bit of third-grade immaturity about the subject of penises died.

Now I have to manage my catheter. Warning: appetite spoiler coming. As my wife said to the kids, “Daddy’s going to be disgusting for a few days.” I have to empty and change a bag strapped to my leg during the day and a bigger one that hangs by my bed at night (but it’s not big enough to get me through the night and let me tell you, you don’t want this thing to back up). As with all challenges, once you’ve faced it, it’s not as daunting as the dread.

My pain isn’t awful, either. I have enough Vicodin to keep Artie Lange or House happy for a month but so far I haven’t used any, just one sleeping pill to date. It hurts my stomach to stand up and lie down – and, gawd, you don’t want to burp or cough and I don’t want to know about sneezes – but that’s momentary. It’s really not bad.

If I had chosen radiation instead of surgery, I would not be dealing with problems of plumbing malfunctions now, but there’s a chance those could come in a few years. And it’s also not possible to be assured that the cancer is gone. There’d be more hanging over my head. So at my age, I’m still glad I chose this course: out, out, damned spot.

I’m well aware how lucky I am. Prostate cancer can be cured; the treatment has its inconveniences but nothing next to so many other forms of the disease. Mine was caught early but my timing was good insofar as robots had been invented and perfected. My unit at Sloan Kettering was filled with nothing but prostate cancer cases like mine. My wife sat in the lobby and saw parents wheeling in a child’s dolls and books for a long stay. That’s what makes the place break your heart. My inconveniences are easily put into perspective.

As I finish this post, it’s Thursday afternoon. I’ve slept through the night, avoided most plumbing disasters, just took a mile walk (at a crawl’s pace), am eating well, and have even had a first glass of wine. I’m probably doing better than I thought I would. One friend took over my class this week and another will next week, but in a fit of optimism, I hope to have my hose-ectomy on Wednesday morning and then go into the city for school that afternoon. We’ll see. In any case, it’s good to have cause for optimism.

I’ll continue to update you on my condition, as warranted.