When I was diagnosed with Stage II testicular cancer in January 2008, no one told me the mental pain would be as fierce as the physical toll. It was as bad as when my mother, grandmother and brother died within seven months of each other. The first few days after receiving the news, I couldn’t — make that wouldn’t — sleep. I was afraid that if I fell asleep, I would die. The last in a four-part series on Paul Arco's memories of testicular cancer.

When I was diagnosed with Stage II testicular cancer in January 2008, no one told me the mental pain would be as fierce as the physical toll.

It was as bad as when my mother, grandmother and brother died within seven months of each other.

The first few days after receiving the news, I couldn’t — make that wouldn’t — sleep.

I was afraid that if I fell asleep, I would die.

I was fighting the pills I was taking to make me sleep. One night, I got up to look out the window to my backyard. I could have sworn I saw people standing in the yard.

It was just deer. Was I starting to lose my mind, too?

No. Thank goodness.

My illness reminded me just how incredibly strong and devoted my wife is to me and our family. Shauna never complained about all that she had to undertake. She just rolled up her sleeves
and did what needed doing.

“I’m turning this over to God,” she told me.

It worked. Today my cancer is in remission.

Throughout my recovery, though, I was overcome by worry, guilt and loneliness.

I worried that I wouldn’t fully recover, felt guilty that maybe I had done something to cause my illness by not taking proper care of myself.

Maybe I should have exercised more or eaten better. Maybe I didn’t attend church enough.

And I felt profound sadness that no matter how many people were around me, I was alone in this conflict. No one could fix the mess that I found myself in.

Not only could I not sleep, I couldn’t eat, and I found no joy in things that used to make me happy. I couldn’t concentrate to read or write. I couldn’t even watch TV; instead, I stayed in bed as long as I could, listening to sports talk radio, hiding from the rest of my life.

I tried to maintain relationships with family, friends and co-workers, but I had mentally checked out. My mind wasn’t on work, how my wife’s day went, or playing with my son.

All I could think about was this damned cancer and what it was doing to me.

The only way I could handle my anguish was by talking it out. I was drowning in depression and my life raft was anyone who’d listen. The greatest listener was my brother, Al, who was on the receiving end of many long and rambling phone calls.

Another was my pastor, William Kerr.

For 24 years, Kerr was the pastor of Riverside Community Church. He buried my mother and married Shauna and me. He was the most eloquent speaker I had ever heard.

Over the past year, I had many conversations with Pastor Kerr about my cancer journey, God, and the afterlife. It shouldn’t have surprised me that he and his wife traveled 10 hours round trip to see me in the hospital in Indianapolis.

“You’d do the same for me, Paul,” he told me.

I’ll never get the chance. Earlier this year, Pastor Kerr died suddenly while on vacation in Florida with his family. He was 57.

One of my closest confidants was gone and it added to the grief I’d suffered for the past 16 months.

Norm Shirk, director of pastoral care at SwedishAmerican Health System, has counseled many people coping with cancer, including me. I found it helpful to also bend the ear of someone who wasn’t so close to my situation.

“We wear our loved ones out,” Shirk said. “Our wives and our husbands are built to be with us until the end, but they’re not always built for the most intense pain. And because we love them, we don’t want to burden them with our fears.”

During my illness, I met two testicular cancer survivors from the Chicago area. Jonny and Ryan offered information and support I couldn’t get from anyone else. Ryan drove four hours to visit me in Indianapolis.

While I found inspiration reading about Lance Armstrong and his triumph over testicular cancer, I found greater comfort talking to these regular guys. Guys like me.

“You can’t underestimate the value of finding people who get it, who are also struggling through it,” Shirk said. “Great friendships form out of that too.”

The acts of kindness were overwhelming — the cards, e-mails, phone calls and bearlike hugs. I have been profoundly touched by all those who wrapped their arms around me.

Co-workers started a Web site so friends and family could keep tabs on my progress. They donated sick hours, raised money for cancer research in my honor, and gave me a shoulder to cry on.

Neighbors pitched in to finish building the deck we had started a couple of years ago. A neighbor loaned me his recliner when I was having trouble sleeping.

Meals came from all directions. Friends popped in for unexpected visits and lined up to bring me lunch and drive me home from the hospital. One good friend, who lost his wife to cancer three years ago, stayed with me many times during treatment.

The journey, however, isn’t over. Far from it. There will be ongoing CT scans, blood tests, and that lingering fear that cancer is knocking on my door again.

But I’m slowly getting a grip on the overpowering fear.

“At first, it was all you could think about,” Shirk said. “You’ve been able to accommodate this disease and heal from it without it continuing to overtake you.”

What helps is to make this into a positive experience. I’ve become a passionate volunteer for cancer-related organizations. I’ve told my story to church folks, high school students and other cancer survivors. I plan to do more public speaking and writing about my journey.

“You are one of those few people who take their experience and want to better the rest of the world,” Glenda Gottfred, an oncology nurse at OSF Saint Anthony Medical Center, told me. “You want people to know what’s going on.

“Cancer is big. There needs to be more people like you willing to share their story.”

Last year, a co-worker approached me not long after I started chemotherapy treatment. He hadn’t been to the doctor in years.

“After seeing what you’ve gone through, I decided to make an appointment,” he told me.

I felt a lump in my throat, never imagining my illness could impact others.

I debated for months whether to go public with my story. After all, there are thousands of people waging war every day against cancer. What makes my story unique? I don’t know that it is.

I decided to share my story because I know most other men don’t.

Urologist Dr. Michael Fumo has seen patients who’ve waited up to a year, when one of their testicles has grown to the size of a grapefruit, before they find their way into his office.

“I’m so frustrated with guys coming to me with a diagnosis of cancer who drink, smoke and don’t take care of themselves,” said Dr. Fumo, one of the architects of my recovery plan. “If we can’t get them to do those simple things…. how are we going to get them to do self exams?”

Maybe my story will help. Maybe some man will read it, learn the importance of self exam, and won’t have to go through what I’ve been through.

That’s my hope, at least.

Paul Anthony Arco, 41, works full-time for the Rockford Park District as the Annual Fund Director. He has been a part-time writer for the Rockford Register Star for nearly 20 years, writing about high school sports, as well as arts and entertainment. He can be reached at paularco@aol.com.

About this series

Paul Anthony Arco was diagnosed with Stage 2 testicular cancer in January 2008 and began fighting the first illness of his life. Several operations and three rounds of chemotherapy later, his cancer is in remission and he decided to tell the story in hopes of raising awareness about the disease. This is the last installment in his four-part story.   Part 3: Scare follows post-chemo surgery   Part 2: Chemo becomes 'a second full-time job'

Part 1: Pain in side beginning of fight with cancer