Feeling Very Human: Judge Kemp Speaks Out on Cancer, Community, and Vulnerability
By Nick Mattos, PQ Monthly
Itâ€™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 anotherâ€™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 Schnellâ€™s muscular arms visible beneath the fabric of their shirts as they hold their glasses of redâ€”the sum of the setting indicates nothing but health, love, and comfort. However, tomorrow is the day that the decorations get taken downâ€”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 â€œhealthy lifestyleâ€ for his entire life. After consulting his doctor after a time of watching and waiting, the doctor ordered a biopsy. â€œThe thought of a biopsy didnâ€™t seem comfortable, so I pooh-poohed it,â€ Kemp explains. â€œIn October, I finally decided to go for it, and I have to say, this prostate biopsy was one of the most incredibly uncomfortable things Iâ€™ve experienced. I was hoping that weâ€™d find that I just had an enlarged prostate, but that everything else was fineâ€”but instead, I tested positive for cancer. This was the Thanksgiving gift that was given to Eric and me.â€ Kempâ€™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.Â 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 â€œresults in small or no reduction in prostate cancerâ€“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 USPSTFâ€™s finding, and stated in a 2010 op-ed for the New York Times that in his view the testâ€™s popularity â€œhas led to a hugely expensive public health disaster.â€ However, organizations including the American Urological Association note that the controversy isnâ€™t rightly about screening itself â€” 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. â€œThe 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,â€ notes researcher Thomas O. Blank of the University of Connecticut. Blank observes that â€œthis â€˜realityâ€™ leaves both gay and bisexual men and heterosexual men who are singleâ€ out of the clinical picture of what having and treating prostate cancer does to a man. Kempâ€™s partner Schnell had no idea what to expect, but set a firm intention to be present for his lover. â€œI was just so worried about him,â€ says Schnell, visibly upset. â€œHe was in a state of shock, and I didnâ€™t know how he would engage with the news. I didnâ€™t want him to go through it. Honestly, Iâ€™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.â€ While Kemp clearly has excellent support from his partner, many gay men facing prostate cancer primarily find their support from the community around them. â€œIt 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,â€ notes Blank. â€œItâ€™s been interesting talking about it and dealing with it socially,â€ notes Kemp. â€œWhen I first started talking about this with people, it was hard to say the word â€˜cancerâ€™ aloud,â€ notes Kemp. â€œIt still sounds funny to me to say â€˜I have cancer.â€™ However, when I tell people, usually the first response is â€˜Iâ€™m so sorry,â€™ A lot of people have been sympathetic and shown so much support, moreso than I realizedâ€¦ and itâ€™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 Iâ€™m now part of a club.â€ â€œAll of our friends have been telling me â€” weâ€™re all going through this together,â€ adds Schnell. â€œI mean, dozens of our friends have said this. Itâ€™s very humbling, seeing everyone during the holidays. Itâ€™s brought us closer to all of our friends.â€ â€œThis is something very hard to share,â€ says Kemp, â€œespecially the nature of this cancer, because some people are afraid to talk about anything this personalâ€¦ some folks didnâ€™t even know what a prostate was or what it does.â€ â€œThe emotional pain has really been the touchy part. Itâ€™s rumored that Iâ€™ve been a little edgy!â€ Kemp quips. â€œIâ€™ve felt off in a lot of ways. Iâ€™ve had to reach out to people around me, have some conversations that are sometimes hard but often help. Iâ€™ve accepted it, thoughâ€”Iâ€™m going to have highs and lows, and Iâ€™m just being honest with the people around me about them. Iâ€™m glad that Iâ€™m able to share whatâ€™s happening in my life and in our life, because Iâ€™m just not going through this alone.â€ â€œNow that he has this news out there, his entire vibe has calmed significantlyâ€”he seems grounded,â€ says Schnell, squeezing his partnerâ€™s hand. â€œIâ€™m proud of how open Judge has been with all of this and the positive impact heâ€™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.â€ â€œMy walls are definitely down,â€ says Kemp. â€œPart of me just wanted to go hide in our bedroom. However, because of the love and community around me, itâ€™s made me feel safe, that I can talk about it and be vulnerable without fear of judgment.â€ He sets his wine glass down on the table thoughtfully. â€œI am feeling very human right now, certainly, but I am feeling very strong tooâ€”and I wouldnâ€™t if I wasnâ€™t making myself so vulnerable and getting so much love in return.â€ 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 partnerâ€™s, a smile spreading across his face, his shoulders relaxed, his heart exposed to the future and what it will bring.