Robert Rodriguez turned his chair around and joined the circle.
Diagnosed with prostate cancer in early April, the 56-year-old Modestan seemed nervous and a bit emotional as he sat through his first support group meeting last week.
He's just beginning his fight against the disease and needed to hear from some survivors. But that's easier said than done when your head is spinning, he said.
"Just listening to them talk, I was in another world," Rodriguez said.
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One by one, they told stories of their disease and their treatments.
"It was 1993," said Lew Woodward, a 79-year-old retired Modesto Junior College music and drama instructor. "I had no symptoms. I felt very healthy. I'm from a family of four brothers, and one of them called to tell me he'd been diagnosed with prostate cancer. When your brother has it, your chances of having it increase by 100 percent."
Woodward had surgery 15 years ago, and organized UsToo -- Modesto's prostate cancer support group -- four years later.
Next came 82-year-old Thom Olson, a retired pharmaceutical salesman. He explained how hormone therapy has kept his cancer in check, also for 15 years.
"Everything works," said Olson, a former group leader. "And I'm here."
The group's current head honcho, Oakdale's Jim Sharp, told them he also tried hormone therapy.
"I had elaborate sweats and mood swings," said Sharp, 69. "My wife told me she was sorry. But somewhere inside, she was smiling."
He ultimately had high-dosage radiation treatments that virtually eliminated his cancer.
That was 4½ years ago.
And there sat Rodriguez, taking it all in while trying to make sense of the technical terms and figures they tossed around.
"I was all ears," Rodriguez said. "I didn't understand these numbers (prostate-specific antigen, or PSA, levels) and I don't understand them yet. But I've been listening to what they've been through. They're older guys and they've lived with this."
Like those men and so many others before him, Rodriguez needs to get past the gut-churning blow of the diagnosis so he can determine his best course of treatment.
Prostate cancer became the second half of a misfortune double-whammy that began a year ago, when he and 574 co-workers learned they would lose their jobs because The Hershey Co. decided to close its chocolate plant in Oakdale.
"It put me in a depression," he said. "I wasn't my usual self. I'd go to work, come home, sit down on the couch and go to sleep."
His last day at the plant was Feb. 1.
"Then, I'd just get up in the morning, go out to the couch and go to sleep," he said. "My legs were swollen. Things weren't right. I was going to the bathroom frequently. I thought I was diabetic because I had it in my family."
His wife, Lisa, demanded that he see a physician. He did, and had a PSA test that registered at six. That meant prostate cancer, not diabetes.
"I was in shock," he said. "I'd never even been in the hospital or anything."
Prostate cancer is the United States' second most common form of cancer, behind only skin cancer. One in six men will develop prostate cancer, and, according to the health information Web site HealthAtoZ.com, it will claim 27,000 lives in the United States this year.
So, it's not surprising when someone gets it. It's only surprising, as Rodriguez can attest, when you're the one.
"I'm the ninth of 11 (children)," he said. "My dad died of a heart attack, but there's been no cancer in the family."
While with her husband at the doctor's office, Lisa Rodriguez was given contact information for Olson. He came to the Rodriguez home bearing literature about the disease. Robert Rodriguez wouldn't come in from the back yard to talk. He was that scared.
Eventually they talked, and Olson invited him to join the prostate group, which meets monthly. He was one of four recent newcomers to the group, which often has as many as 50 people, including wives and children of survivors and current patients, attending its meetings.
The group just completed its 10th year officially, but has been around much longer in concept.
It really began in September 1993, when member Chuck Rowland's 62nd birthday came around. That same month marked his first anniversary as a cancer survivor. His wife, Marilyn, asked him who he wanted to invite to his birthday party.
"Invite everyone we know who has had prostate cancer," Rowland replied.
Seven couples attended, including the Woodwards.
"We had a salmon barbecue," Marilyn Rowland said. "There was lots of wine flowing. Nobody said a word about (the disease) until about 10 o'clock. Then it just came out of them."
They talked late into the night, and determined to get together at least two or three times a year.
In 1997, Woodward turned in the paperwork to get a local chapter charter from the national organization.
By the time he left Monday night's meeting, Rodriguez had heard enough to decide he would go to the University of California at San Francisco Medical Center to determine which treatment he'll get.
Some patients have surgery, including robotics. Others choose radiation or hormone therapy.
"If (doctors) say there's no reason to get a second opinion," Woodward told the group, "that's all the more reason to get a second opinion."
Rodriguez found relief in their stories and advice. Meeting men who have survived prostate cancer for so many years certainly lifted his spirits, too.
"I don't even know these people and they're concerned about me," he said. "Hopefully, down the road, I'll be able to help someone else like they're helping me. That's what it's all about."
There's always room for one more in the circle.
The UsToo Prostate Cancer Support Group Modesto Chapter meets the fourth Monday of each month at 7 p.m. at Memorial Medical Center's Health and Education Conference Center in McHenry Village. This month's meeting, however, will be May 19. For more information, contact group leader Jim Sharp at 848-2200.
Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays in Local News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 578-2383.