My Fight Against the Big C
I contracted cancer of the throat when I was fifty-six. Less than two years later, I was diagnosed with prostate cancer. A few years after that, a basal cell carcinoma was removed from face. Now, aged seventy-three, I’m in the best of health and enjoying my retirement. My hope is that other victims of this terrible disease will find hope and inspiration from my story as a cancer survivor.
“You should see a doctor,” Sue says for the umpteenth time since we’ve been married.
I run my fingers over the bump on my neck. I noticed it last week while shaving. It seems bigger now, more defined. I take another sip of wine. “If it’s not gone by tomorrow I’ll make an appointment.”
Sue frowns. “You don’t usually agree with me so quickly. Are you worried about it?”
Sitting in the backyard, basking in the glorious Australian sunshine and enjoying the soft spicy flavours of a Margaret River Shiraz, worry seems to be a pointless exercise.
“No, but better to be safe than sorry, don’t you think?”
“Hmmm,” she says, putting down her book. “Another glass?”
My doctor sends me to a radiologist who takes a core needle biopsy. The needle is hollow and used to extract a sample from my lump. The specialist confirms my suspicions. “Throat cancer metastasized to the lymph node. That’s what causes the lump.”
He’s very casual about telling me. Not surprising, really. He probably sees twenty patients a day. I decide to take a bus home.
Should I feel upset? Angry? It isn’t anyone’s fault that I have cancer. It’s just karma really. Ten years ago, my father was diagnosed with liver cancer. When the surgeon told him it was inoperable and he was going to die soon, he said, “Life’s a toss of the coin. I thought it might have come down the other way.”
At the Peter Mac clinic in Melbourne, Australia, there’s plenty of time to think about karma. A technician, who looks about the same age as my youngest daughter, asks me to lie down inside a heat machine and they melt some plastic netting onto my face and shoulders.
“When you undergo radiotherapy, the mask is bolted to the table to keep your head still. It’s important to have a good fit to make sure they treat the right spot every time,” she explains.
“It’s a little loose around the ears,” I suggest playfully.
Six long weeks, five days a week, I take the lift down to the lead-lined basement, and check in.
“Machine 4 today, Patrick. There’s about three ahead of you, so it’ll be about an hour’s wait.”
I don’t mind. I can easily nod off for an hour or so. Most times I’m there, I’m reminded of how lucky I am. The man sitting opposite me is missing an ear and the whole of one side of his face looks like it has been fried on a barbecue. He is conversing with a young bloke in his mid-twenties with one and a half legs. Next to him is a boy of around ten without a hair on his head, sitting quietly beside his mother. It’s bad enough when you are old. God give them strength.
The bloke sitting next to me has a plastic tube inserted up his nose. “I lost too much weight so they feed me through this,” he said.
“Don’t fancy that much!”
“I didn’t have much choice, but the good news is I only have another week to go. I lasted four and a half weeks without one.” He seems quite proud.
I exchange my clothes for a gown and enter the white-walled radiation-proof room. To one side I can see a hollow cylinder with a long table extending from it. This is the machine that accurately targets the cancer site during each radiation treatment. Two female technicians greet me cheerfully. One brings a warm blanket; the other hands me a bell. If I become worried, he says, I’m to ring the bell and they will stop the session. I feel inordinately grateful for their concern.
My head is bolted to the table. They raise the bed guards and drift away like ghosts. It is so quiet I wonder whether they are still in the room.
“Hello?” There is no response, then click. A disembodied voice crackles from some speakers behind my head.
“Patrick, I’d like you to keep very still for about ten minutes. We want to take some photographs of your neck.”
Click. The machine whirrs, travelling horizontally along the bed and rotating around my body. I can feel my eyelashes kissing my mask and try not to blink. It’s not easy to keep perfectly still for ten minutes. Parts of my anatomy seem to have a will of their own. I strive to breathe evenly so that my chest doesn’t move. An involuntary twitch of an arm causes me to tense up even more. Pain is shooting up my neck from holding it in the same position for so long. Beneath the mask my face is wet with perspiration. I don’t want to stuff it up.
An eternity passes before they enter the room calling brightly, “All over!”
The first of three chemo sessions takes place a fortnight later. The nurse quickly becomes my best friend, calming and professional, trustworthy. She’s the one who injects the poison into my body via a drip that hangs like a fruit bat from the stand beside my armchair. She’s the one who praises me when I manage to pass a litre of urine at the end of the day.
I feel like death warmed up, but I know nothing lasts forever. Gradually, I begin to feel well again – just in time for the next session.
“The chemo increases the effectiveness of your radiation treatment by about ten percent,” says the doctor.
That doesn’t seem a big return for undergoing the torments of hell. I ask whether she would have it done, were she in my shoes.
“I’d do whatever it takes,” she says.
Four weeks into my treatment and my throat feels like a blowtorch has been trained on it. The dietician prescribes milkshakes with additives, which don’t taste so bad, but the chemo has robbed me of my appetite.
“You’ve lost five kilos! Drink more!” the dietician urges.
“I can stand to lose a few kilos,” I plead.
“Lose three more and I’ll fit you with a nasogastric tube.”
I put on a kilo over the next two weeks.
“Good boy,” she says.
Three months after my treatment ends, Sue invites all my friends to a barbecue to celebrate my recovery. It is a glorious sunny day. It’s good to be alive.
My Fight Against the Big C – the Memoir of a Cancer Survivor is dedicated to the staff at Peter MacCallum Cancer Centre.
There are a large number of people I want to thank for their support of me, personally, and their dedication to their profession. Highly skilled radiation oncologists, radiation therapists and medical physicists designed my radiation therapy plan and delivered my treatment. The nurses, allied health and administrative staff, provided the highest standard of individualised patient-centered care. (My apologies if I have omitted anyone). Without their help, I doubt I’d be alive today to tell the tale.
I also give a shout out to Dr. Johann Vanderzeil of Croydon Family Practice, and the doctors and staff of St Vincent’s hospital, Melbourne, Australia.