In September 2016, my mum came to my work to give me and my sister the devastating news: your dad has throat cancer and he has to have major surgery to remove the tumour. Prognoses at this point was unknown, but there was talk of possible nerve damage and even removal of his voicebox. She was in tears and I felt numb. They say that people don’t hear anything after being told they have cancer and I don’t really recall anything for the minutes afterwards. It was just utter shock that a healthy man in his very early 50’s could suddenly be so ill.
How the throat cancer began
Just over a year ago my dad had developed a lump on the left side of his neck. It would later transpire that this once benign lump had developed into throat cancer. One of the first questions people as is “was he a smoker”. He was in his 30’s but quit 20 years before his diagnoses. What we would later be told by the specialist was that the main causes of throat cancer are smoking, drinking neat spirits and the HPV virus. In his case it was smoking.
The cancer was secondary and various scans including a P.E.T. (positron emission tomography) scan would need to be carried out to try and identify the primary cancer.
Dad was actually very pragmatic about it all when he found out, but mum wasn’t. The day after the diagnoses she sent me a message.
“My heart is breaking” she said. “I’m trying to hard in front of him but the minute he is out of sight I just break down with grief” followed next.
It was a difficult message to receive. You always look to your parents for support, so when they’re suddenly relying on you to say the right thing, it’s a strange experience. I tried to be positive and remind her that his is still young and that we must be positive or negativity will get us all, including him. If you’ve ever seen the scene in ‘The Neverending Story’ where Artax this horse dies in the Swamp of Sadness, you’ll know how this feels: trying to be positive whilst swimming around is a thick sea of negativity. If you’re not careful it’ll swallow you and everyone around you up.
The surgery to remove the tumour
Within weeks, the oncologist had my dad in the operating theatre and was removing the lump from his neck. The surgery involved opening the side of his next from below his ear, down the side of his neck, and across the front of his throat. It took about 3 hours. They removed a lump the size of an egg, his tonsils and a lymph gland. He was stapled back together with 37 staples and a drain was fitted. This was on a Tuesday and by Saturday he was back home. The care he received at Broomfield hospital was exemplary.
Recovering from the initial surgery
Unfortunately, after a week he was still in a lot of pain, mainly from where the tonsillectomy had taken place, and within 14 days he was back in hospital. He had developed and infection and needed another general anaesthetic to investigate the cause of the problem. Thankfully this was treated with a big dose of antibiotics and he was back home again less than 24 hours later.
As the next couple of weeks went on his scar from the surgery healed very well, and he looked better despite having lost quite a bit of weight. However, he still got tired very easily. It was clear to see he was losing weight.
Telling the children that Grandad had cancer
We’d told the kids that Grandad had a lump in his neck that needed to be removed, but we hadn’t told them why. My son and daughter – 11 and 9 respectively – aren’t stupid. They were soon going to realise that something wasn’t right once the radiotherapy commenced, especially if he had to have a feeding tube up his nose. They have a close relationship and spend a lot of time with him and now we had a complete diagnoses it was time to tell them the truth. Between us we made the decision to tell the children that Grandad had throat cancer.
We decided it was important to be as truthful as we could. Important so that there could never be any accusation that we’d hid anything from them. I sat them down with my wife and gave them the news as gently but as factually as possible. My son, the eldest, initially took the news badly but we were able to quickly explain to him the prognoses and that things appeared to be possible.
Most importantly we encouraged them to ask questions, not just to us but also to my dad. We needed the children to understand that they could speak to anyone they want to and ask questions to whoever they like. I think it reassured them.
It was now time for the next treatment – Radiotherapy
The biopsy confirmed that there was cancer in the lump and gland removed. Unfortunately, the source of the primary cancer still couldn’t be identified. It was therefore recommended that dad was given radiotherapy for throat cancer to his neck to eliminate the risk of the throat cancer coming back.
Dad might have to have a feeding tube inserted into his stomach or via his nose, and could either inject food into the tube himself or wear a backpack to control the feeding for him. He’s also need to have a special mask made of his fact to protect it during the radiotherapy treatment. It’s important he doesn’t lose weight during the radiotherapy as this can have a negative affect on how the treatment is delivered.
It’s clear that he and us are very early in this horrible nightmare and perhaps the worst it to come. I don’t know what the future holds, but I’m going to try and update as much as possible.
Keeping positive is going to be vital
One thing I do know is that being negative isn’t going to help anyone. It won’t help keep my dad encouraged, it won’t help the family. No, more than ever, it’s time for everyone to rally around and be there to help in whatever little way necessary.