Saturday, December 17, 2011

I fought cancer. Cancer lost.

Some friends have asked if I was scared when, in September 2009, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. The weird thing is, I got the bad news smack-dab in the middle of a film history class at Houston Community College. I was introducing a screening of His Girl Friday for my students when my cell phone buzzed. So I excused myself, stepped outside, took the call from my doctor -- and then went back into the classroom to finish, without skipping a beat, my enthusiastic explanation of why Hawks' masterwork is so gosh-darn funny. At the risk of sounding immodest, I think people have won Oscars for performances that were less convincing than the one I pulled off that day.

Of course, I went home that night and drank, oh, I dunno, about a gallon of Merlot. And the whole time I was getting sloshed, I kept fixating on something my doctor had said: My cancer was "aggressive." I found myself imagining the cancer cells as a rowdy bunch of drunken Irishmen, fighting in a pub. Geez.

After sobering up, I opted for radiation therapy. I managed to delay the kick-off date for a few weeks because... because... well, because I'd already committed to doing an on-stage Q&A with Hal Holbrook at the Starz Denver Film Festival, and I figured that, what the hell, if my number was up, I probably wouldn't get too many more chances to do anything else as cool as that.

But, of course, you can't delay the inevitable. The first day of treatment finally arrived -- and yeah, I'll admit it, I was goddamn terrified. And as I sat in a waiting room around 6:30 am, clad in a hospital gown, counting the minutes until I'd be escorted down the hall to the room where I would be irradiated, I remembered what Francois Cluzet says in Late August, Early September: "You're all alone with what goes on inside your body." So I impulsively raced back to the locker where I'd stored my clothes, dug out my cell phone, and snapped this photo. Because I never wanted to forget that moment when I felt totally and completely all by myself.

For a long time, I thought it would be unseemly and/or self-indulgent to merely talk, much less write, about any of this. But I have had a change of heart as I've come to realize that people who are just as scared as I was that morning might need a little encouragement.

So consider this: I endured weeks of early-morning radiation therapy -- and for about three of those weeks, I worked at least part-time at a full-time job while devoting evenings and Saturday mornings to teaching a mini-semester Social Aspects of Film course at University of Houston. I continued to write free-lance articles, blog postings -- including obits for Eric Rohmer and Erich Segal, an enthusiastic appreciation of Sandra Bullock's Oscar prospects and, ironically, a brief mention of Dennis Hopper's own battle with prostate cancer -- and movie reviews. At one point, one of the very few people who knew about my condition asked how I was able to do so much at the same time. I blithely replied: "I'll sleep when I'm dead." Then, after considering what I'd said, I added, "You know, maybe I should have phrased that differently..."

I look back now, and I see what I really was doing: I was telling myself and the world at large and Great God Almighty that I would not bend and I would not break and I would not, could not, be knocked down. Or something like that. Basically, I stopped being scared, and started getting angry. I stopped praying -- after all, God has, then as now, more important things to worry about than whether or not I shuffle off this mortal coil -- and started being pissed off. I don't recommend this approach to everybody. But, hey, it appears to have worked for me.

I completed my radiation therapy on Jan. 27, 2010. (That's when I posed for the photo at the very top of this blog posting.) Nearly two years later, my PSA level continues to trend down, down, down. Last April, it measured 3.0. Today, I received an early Christmas present: According to the nice folks who handled my blood work Friday at Kelsey-Seybold Clinic, the magic number is 1.0.

So you know what? Cancer can kiss my irradiated ass. Because I am not afraid.


Craig Kennedy said...

Congrats Joe, from someone you don't even know, on making it through the last few years and thanks for sharing this with all the people who one day might find themselves biting into the same shit sandwich.

Anonymous said...

Bless you, Joe Leydon.

MovieGal said...

Thank you for sharing this raw and moving account of your experience fighting cancer. I think that reading it is going to give a lot of hurting people strength and, yes, hope.

Al Tran said...

Give 'em hell, Joe!

Anonymous said...

Congrats joe! From a fellow houstonian down the street. You're fighting the good fight and I'm sure you have provided inspiration to others thru this post