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Gay buddies with prostate cancer

Gay Men's Wellness offers connections to help men deal

THERE FOR EACH OTHER. David Garmaise and Bruce Bursey (r) were able to share their stories about surviving prostate cancer thanks to a program Bursey started through Ottawa's Gay Men's Wellness Initia Credit: (Shawn Scallen)

Bruce Bursey, 54, found out that he had prostate cancer two months after having his annual physical in September of 2004. He says the hardest part of the disease was getting over the initial shock.

“There’s a psychological component from the beginning that you’ve got to face,” Bursey says. “Each individual faces it in their own way.”

But Bursey also found it would have been easier to face, and easier for his partner, if he could have turned to other gay men who had survived prostate cancer and learned to live with its challenges.So he decided to do something about that for the next person in line by working with the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative — which he had founded — to put a buddy program in place.

Bursey was lucky enough to have an understanding partner of 10 years, who helped him research and understand his treatment options and the effects they would have. Bursey ultimately chose to have a radical prostatectomy during which the prostate is removed completely. He says he chose this method because should the cancer grow back, he’ll still be able to have radiation therapy.

Initially, he says, because everyone who has prostate cancer has a legacy of dealing with incontinence and erectile dysfunction, Bursey says he felt uncomfortable telling Peter Lockwood about his cancer. But once he did, his situation brought the two closer together.

“He’s extremely patient and loving still,” Bursey says. “If anything, I’m the one carrying the burden that I’m not able to give him as much pleasure as I would like.”

Lockwood says he was aware things weren’t going to be lighten-ed in the bedroom for some time after Bursey’s operation, so he just did what a good lover would do — give as much support as he could.

“We had a lot of discussions about sexual activity,” Lockwood explains. “Bruce is really good. He accepted what was happening to him. He didn’t get upset. We really did a lot of studying and asking doctors to reduce the concern. We just tried to deal with it one thing at a time.”

But to make sure the process was easier for other gay men, Bursey turned to the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative.

As a result, he was there when David Garmaise, 58, found out he had prostate cancer last August. The day of the diagnosis, Garmaise says he left the hospital thinking the only thing he could do was to find people who could provide support and explain what his treatment options would be.

At first Garmaise was unable to find a group that could provide support specifically to gay men. Eventally, though, he was connected to the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative, where he met Bursey. The two were able to share resources about the disease and provide mutual support. Garmaise credits Bursey as being “tremendously supportive and helpful.” One book that both men found to be helpful was A Gay Man’s Guide To Prostate Cancer by Gerald Perlman, PhD. Both Bursey and Garmaise found the website www.malecare.com a source of useful information. The site also offers a chat group link for gay men with prostate cancer; health-care professionals participate in the group.

Garmaise chose brachytherapy as his prostate cancer treatment. Seeds of radioactive iodine were implanted into his body. Brachytherapy has less risk of erectile dysfunction.

Garmaise says the only other prostate cancer support group he had been able to find in Ottawa was associated with Prostate Cancer Association Ottawa (PCA). He says he didn’t find PCA very helpful because the meetings did not cover any issues specific to gay men.

“The assumption (I felt) was that all of the men in the room were straight and that they were married to a woman,” Garmaise says. “I did not feel that I would receive any support as a gay man in this group. To be fair, I did not announce that I was gay and I did not ask whether they could introduce me to someone who was gay within that group.”

Prostate cancer is life-threatening and embarrassing to talk about, says Barry Deeprose, co-chair of the Gay Men’s Wellness Initiative. That can be made worse for gay men without gay support.

Deeprose says the Initiative didn’t deal with prostate cancer until after Bursey was diagnosed.

“It’s well-proven scientifically that people who get into support groups do better than people who do not,” Deeprose says. “I think it’s really important for gay men with prostate cancer to talk about prostate cancer with other gay men. They shouldn’t be drawn towards groups where there are straight men. You end up explaining yourself as a gay man and it doesn’t really feel safe.”

But prostate cancer doesn’t discriminate based on sexual orientation, PCA chairman Ted Johnston says.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re straight or gay, it’s a male cancer unique to men because they have a prostate,” Johnston says.

He recognizes the embarrassment that gay men must have attending a straight-oriented prostate cancer information session. He says he’d like to hold a separate session specifically for gay men.

“Most men we deal with are straight because of their wives saying get the hell in there if you’re diagnosed,” Johnston says.”(Gay men) don’t have to play true confessions in the first meetings. We don’t give a damn. We’re concerned about dealing with the disease and the treatments. I’d like to hear from those who don’t feel reassured after being to our meetings.”