Feeling Very Human: Judge Kemp Speaks Out on Cancer, Community, and Vulnerability

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By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
It’s the first week of 2014, and in a quiet North Portland neighborhood the Kemp-Schnell house is still lit up for the holidays. A thirteen-foot Christmas tree covered in lights and baubles shines its light over a broad couch where Judge Kemp and his partner Eric Schnell sit comfortably, holding one another’s hands. The room is full of tasteful art and subtly nostalgic heirlooms; through a wall of picture windows, a lit fountain bubbles in the garden. The scene is one of romantic coziness, holiday cheer, and modern gay achievement, down to Kemp and Schnell’s muscular arms visible beneath the fabric of their shirts as they hold their glasses of red—the sum of the setting indicates nothing but health, love, and comfort. However, tomorrow is the day that the decorations get taken down—and in a few weeks, Kemp will begin treatment for prostate cancer. A government worker and writer, Kemp had been working on a project exploring his family history of health problems when he began to manifest numerous alarming symptoms. This came as a great shock to Kemp; as an Eagle Scout, a former model, and a five-day-a-week gym-goer, Kemp has lived the textbook “healthy lifestyle†for his entire life. After consulting his doctor after a time of watching and waiting, the doctor ordered a biopsy. “The thought of a biopsy didn’t seem comfortable, so I pooh-poohed it,†Kemp explains. “In October, I finally decided to go for it, and I have to say, this prostate biopsy was one of the most incredibly uncomfortable things I’ve experienced. I was hoping that we’d find that I just had an enlarged prostate, but that everything else was fine—but instead, I tested positive for cancer. This was the Thanksgiving gift that was given to Eric and me.†Kemp’s story should not prompt a dash to the doctor for a screening, especially as the practice of prostate cancer screening itself is not without its controversies.  In 2011, the United States Preventive Services Task Force issued a statement recommending against use of the prostate-specific antigen (PSA) test in otherwise healthy men, noting that PSA test-based screening “results in small or no reduction in prostate cancer–specific mortality and is associated with harms related to subsequent evaluation and treatments, some of which may be unnecessary." Dr. Richard J. Ablin, the discoverer of PSA, agrees with the USPSTF’s finding, and stated in a 2010 op-ed for the New York Times that in his view the test’s popularity “has led to a hugely expensive public health disaster.†However, organizations including the American Urological Association note that the controversy isn’t rightly about screening itself — rather, it centers around how screenings influence the decision to treat. The American Cancer Society, while not supportive of routine screenings, recommends that men considered at high risk for prostate cancer (including African-American men) start talking with their doctors about prostate cancer around age 45. Despite its prevalence amongst men in general, there are shockingly few studies looking at the specific impacts that prostate cancer and its treatments have upon gay men. “The assumptive reality of virtually all research and clinical information related to issues of sexuality [and] sexual function [in regards to prostate cancer] and [its] impact on relationships is that of married men in long-term, presumably monogamous relationships,†notes researcher Thomas O. Blank of the University of Connecticut. Blank observes that “this ‘reality’ leaves both gay and bisexual men and heterosexual men who are single†out of the clinical picture of what having and treating prostate cancer does to a man. Kemp’s partner Schnell had no idea what to expect, but set a firm intention to be present for his lover. “I was just so worried about him,†says Schnell, visibly upset. “He was in a state of shock, and I didn’t know how he would engage with the news. I didn’t want him to go through it. Honestly, I’d go through it myself before he went through it. I wanted to put a safety net around him, let him experience and express anything, and feel safe in doing so.†While Kemp clearly has excellent support from his partner, many gay men facing prostate cancer primarily find their support from the community around them. “It is not that single heterosexual or gay men do not have social support, but that the center of that support is different, and is less likely to be centered around a marital or marriage-like partner and more likely to be embedded within a network of friendships and the broader GLBT community,†notes Blank. “It’s been interesting talking about it and dealing with it socially,†notes Kemp. “When I first started talking about this with people, it was hard to say the word ‘cancer’ aloud,†notes Kemp. “It still sounds funny to me to say ‘I have cancer.’ However, when I tell people, usually the first response is ‘I’m so sorry,’ A lot of people have been sympathetic and shown so much support, moreso than I realized… and it’s enabled lots of folks to come out of the closet, so to speak, to tell me about their experiences with prostate cancer. The sick irony of it is that I’m now part of a club.†“All of our friends have been telling me — we’re all going through this together,†adds Schnell. “I mean, dozens of our friends have said this. It’s very humbling, seeing everyone during the holidays. It’s brought us closer to all of our friends.†“This is something very hard to share,†says Kemp, “especially the nature of this cancer, because some people are afraid to talk about anything this personal… some folks didn’t even know what a prostate was or what it does.†“The emotional pain has really been the touchy part. It’s rumored that I’ve been a little edgy!†Kemp quips. “I’ve felt off in a lot of ways. I’ve had to reach out to people around me, have some conversations that are sometimes hard but often help. I’ve accepted it, though—I’m going to have highs and lows, and I’m just being honest with the people around me about them. I’m glad that I’m able to share what’s happening in my life and in our life, because I’m just not going through this alone.†“Now that he has this news out there, his entire vibe has calmed significantly—he seems grounded,†says Schnell, squeezing his partner’s hand. “I’m proud of how open Judge has been with all of this and the positive impact he’s had on the people around us. When somebody lets their guard down and shows their vulnerability, the people around them are able to bring their guard down. It opens the door to get closer to one another, by taking off a layer or two and exposing something more raw, taking down a wall.†“My walls are definitely down,†says Kemp. “Part of me just wanted to go hide in our bedroom. However, because of the love and community around me, it’s made me feel safe, that I can talk about it and be vulnerable without fear of judgment.†He sets his wine glass down on the table thoughtfully. “I am feeling very human right now, certainly, but I am feeling very strong too—and I wouldn’t if I wasn’t making myself so vulnerable and getting so much love in return.†Tomorrow, Judge Kemp and Eric Schnell will take down their holiday decorations. They will unstring the lights from their tall Christmas tree, wrapping each ornament in newspaper for safekeeping. However, tomorrow has not come yet. For now, they sit illuminated in the glow of good times, the evidence of a community of support all around them. Kemp sits ensconced in the center of it all, looking down at his hand in his partner’s, a smile spreading across his face, his shoulders relaxed, his heart exposed to the future and what it will bring.