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Writer uses poetry to help cope with prostate cancer

Tue., Feb. 10, 2009

Earlier our notable numbers

were batting average, GPA and annual salary.

In middle age they shift to

cholesterol, years till retirement and PSA.

Don’t be fooled, the last stands for

Periodic Stimulation of Anxiety.

Steve Heaps, “The Numbers of Man”

When Steve Heaps was diagnosed with prostate cancer 13 months ago, all he could do at first was cry.

He held Karen, his wife of 45 years, even closer as he absorbed his new reality: life-altering decisions involving surgery or hormone treatment, side effects that include urinary incontinence and erectile dysfunction, the possibility of death.

Heaps eventually emerged from that fog of confusion and paralysis by reading all he could about the disease and consulting other men with prostate cancer about his options.

Six weeks after the confirmed biopsy and three and a half months after completing a 50-mile endurance race in Montana, he underwent a radical prostatectomy – the surgical removal of the entire prostate gland.

Now, to cope with his fears, frustrations and other emotions, Heaps writes about his cancer. He calls his work “prostate poetry.”

As a retired psychologist, his hope is to encourage other men and their families to write about their experiences and to compile their efforts into a book, “Prostatus Poetica: 101 Tales of Survival.”

He also wants to bring attention to the second leading cause of cancer death in American men.

About one in six will be diagnosed with prostate cancer during his lifetime, according to the American Cancer Society. In 2008, the ACS estimated that 186,320 new cases would be diagnosed and that 28,660 men would die of the disease.

But despite its prevalence, it’s still a disease that men shy away from talking about.

“Feelings that are notoriously difficult for men to express may be more easily approached through writing,” Heaps said. “I hope to encourage others to gain the benefits of expressing their reactions to their disease.”

The benefits of writing as a means to cope became apparent to Heaps about five years ago. Although he had written articles about training for Bloomsday and other races for Running Times and other magazines, he didn’t delve into poetry and prose until his involvement with “Write from the Heart” – a Spokane area writing group made up of doctors, nurses and other professional caregivers.

Led by Spokane poet and writing instructor Lisa Conger and Heaps’ longtime running partner, Dr. Bill Greene, the group meets twice a month at The Providence Center for Faith and Healing at Sacred Heart Medical Center.

Their effort to use poetry as a way to expressing their personal life experiences, especially the most painful ones, is based on the research of Dr. James W. Pennebaker, a psychologist at the University of Texas at Austin and author of “Opening Up: The Healing Power of Expressing Emotion.”

Pennebaker concluded that people who wrote about their trauma reported fewer illnesses and more positive moods as well as improved immune systems.

He believes that the act of writing – even if a person shreds the piece of paper containing his or her words immediately afterward – can help people cope with divorce, a job loss, death and other catastrophic events by allowing them to step back and evaluate what’s happening in their lives.

When Heaps started attending the regular gathering at The Center for Faith and Healing, he wrote poems about spirituality, the death of his parents, losing a beloved dog.

He also found himself writing about everyday things and observations in his life that included pheasant hunting, Hummers and his grandmother’s piano.

His cancer diagnosis and his prostatectomy became his focus a year ago. Shortly after surgery, Heaps wrote five prostate poems. He shared them with his wife. He then read them out loud to the members of his writing group, who praised his work while expressing their sadness and worry.

“I was really scared,” said Heaps, 65. “I was angry. I was confused. I was trying not to feeling sorry for myself. … It felt good to get it down on paper.”

His father was diagnosed with prostate cancer in his late 60s, received hormone treatment and lived until he was 84.

Heaps knows many others who have survived or continue to cope with the disease. Most men don’t bring it up in conversation, he said, but when he asks, they often want to talk.

“Guys are trained to suck it up and be tough,” he said.

His hope is to change that attitude and encourage more men to write. Getting the words down on paper has allowed him to connect with others in the writing group, Heaps said. It also has prevented him from “brooding as much” about his misfortune.

The writing might also contribute to his improving health and recovery, Heaps said.

His PSA level (prostate-specific antigen, a protein produced by the prostate gland’s cells) continues to decrease. Heaps subscribes to a regimen that includes sleep, drinking lots of pomegranate juice, a little red wine, eating soy substitutes and no red meat.

He also continues to run an average of 30 miles a week. A veteran of more than 60 ultramarathons, Heaps finished the 50-mile Le Grizz endurance run for the 27th time last fall.

His next PSA check is scheduled just before Bloomsday, a race Heaps completed last year in under an hour despite the fact that he was still recovering from his prostatectomy. (Karen Heaps was formerly the Bloomsday race director.)

“Poetry might scare guys off,” he acknowledged, “but I always feel better after writing things down. I’m able to construct a story out of the confusion. Writing gives you a sense of control.”

Since he came up with the idea for “Prostatus Poetica,” Heaps has reached out to other men throughout the country who are living with prostate cancer as well as those who have survived. He encourages them to write, even by just making a list of words to describe their thoughts and feelings.

Heaps also has sent information to doctors and other health care professionals who treat men with prostate cancer, asking them to promote writing as a tool to cope with their disease.

He hopes to compile the works of these men, as well as those of their wives and partners, other family members and friends. He wants other guys to start talking about prostate cancer and encourage men in their 40s and 50s to see their doctors and get their PSAs regularly checked.

When Heaps was diagnosed with the disease, Karen Heaps immediately sent out an e-mail to everyone she knew advising them to schedule a check-up or to tell the men in their lives to be aware of their PSA count.

Men whose cancer has been in remission for several years have to continue getting tested every year to ensure that a “rogue cancer cell” isn’t left behind to raise their PSA count and cause a later recurrence.

“Guys several years out may be doing perfectly fine emotionally regarding the disease, but their writing could help others,” Heaps said.

“Reading about other’s experiences makes one feel less alone, and supported.”

Virginia de Leon is a Spokane-based freelance writer. Reach her at

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