He said, “Write about it!” I said, “Are you sure?” He said, “It’s a secret! It needs to be talked about. And it’s funny.”
Mostly, it’s not funny. The yelping? The jumping and growling? The gravelly moods?
We’re talking about hot flashes. His.
The story begins on the not-funny side. Eleven years ago, Burt had surgery that removed his cancerous prostate but caused a fistula. The operation might not have been necessary. Today, non-surgical treatments would be tried first. But there he was, left with a hole between bladder and colon.
That doctor presented two options for dealing with the fistula — another major surgery to repair the hole, or a colostomy bag for life. Burt looked for other answers. He found a doctor who repaired the fistula with a minimally invasive procedure. Seeking a second (third, fourth) opinion served Burt well.
For about eight years, his PSA (Prostate-Specific Antigen) count stayed near zero. Then it began to rise. When it doubled in six months, his new urologist offered an estrogen-based therapy known to lower PSA and prevent progression of cancer. Estrogen would, however, bring side effects. Weight gain. Male breasts. Hot flashes.
Burt said, “No, thanks!”
A friend directed him to an Indian doctor in Johannesburg, South Africa, whose herbal regimen reportedly halted cancer. Burt and the doctor communicated by Skype. A box came by mail, containing pill bottles packed in newspaper. (An op-ed complained that buses behaved like taxis, stopping at riders’ requests; a real estate ad touted a “very neat and spacious, three-bedroom, two-bathroom family home to fall in love with!”)
Burt started the herbal program. His PSA count dropped and remained low for 18 months.
Then it started to climb. The South African doctor said it was time for Burt to stop the herbal program and proceed with medical treatment in the U.S.
Burt consulted his urologist plus an oncologist, and the two doctors concurred that his best treatment option was a program of estrogen-based shots.
Estrogen again! But this time Burt felt ready.
Weight gain? “I’ve lost weight before! I can do it again.”
Male breasts? “Boobs? I’ll buy a sports bra!”
Hot flashes? “They can’t be too bad. You sweat, right?” He knew about sweat from football and saunas.
He got the first shot, and not much happened. Some weight gain. Nothing serious.
Then, one morning, water squirted from his forehead. He turned red and yelled, “Augghh!” and ran out the back door. It was freezing cold, but he stayed outside until he cooled off. When he came in, he was raging. “I hate this! It’s awful!”
Daily he woke feeling edgy, trapped. When a hot flash was brewing, his skin tingled and he dreaded what was coming — the heat and headache, the yucky rush of things-aren’t-right. Then, when the gushing began, he roared and bolted for the back yard.
Every afternoon, his spirits dropped further. He could see no hope. He sank into his recliner and waited, grimly, for the next hot flash.
When a sweat came at night, he would toss away covers, grunt and moan, afterward get chilled, pull the covers back on, spend 20 minutes getting back to sleep, only to be jolted awake with another sweat.
I tried to comfort him. I’d coo, offer cool water, touch his sticky forehead and agree: yes, this is a bad sweat. He would seethe, “I’m wet! All over! This is WRONG!”
One day I whispered, “Women go through this all the time.”
He stopped the noise and looked at me. I could see the fog rolling away.
“Female hormones,” I said. “Girls get sick every month, have PMS for a week, get antsy, depressed, they ache and feel wet for another week, and this goes on until menopause, hot flashes … ”
“And they don’t complain.” He said this quietly. “Here I am, groaning. Men don’t know! … What’s PMS?”
“Pre-menstrual Syndrome. You climb the walls.”
“Oh. Men don’t know.”
That was a turning point. Burt has always shown compassion. Now, more so. He notes, more carefully than ever, any comment made by anyone about troubles of any kind. He grieves for — and wants to raise funds for — women who live with fistulas, in shame, in places where minimally invasive repair, or any repair, is unavailable. He says his empathy has grown thanks to female hormones.
These days, his PSA is at zero-point-something, he accepts the hot flashes (almost), and he hardly ever roars. When he gets a sweat in a grocery aisle, he tells women shoppers, “Watch out! I might start throwing off my clothes! I’m having a hot flash!”
The women laugh, then say gently, “Are you okay?”
Burt smiles. He knows that they know that he knows.
Daily he woke feeling edgy, trapped. When a hot flash was brewing, his skin tingled and he dreaded what was coming — the heat and headache, the yucky rush of things-aren’t-right.