by accepting my weakness
Recently I learned a former co-worker I knew in Nebraska
was diagnosed with throat cancer. I wouldn’t wish any
cancer on my worst enemy, but having gone through throat
cancer I know first hand how difficult the treatment can be.
My ex-wife hand breast cancer and I watched her go
through chemo and radiation, so when I was given the news
that my treatment would consist of six chemo sessions and
thirty radiation sessions I was ecstatic. I remembered how
violently ill she got with chemo and while she got tired with
radiation it was a lot easier on her than chemo.
And my chemo wasn’t going to be “true” chemo. In fact, the
goal of it was to make the cancer cells grow and come to
the surface so radiation could kill them. Even the surgery
before hand wasn’t that bad. I had a tonsil removed and
that was it.
After the surgery I was sent to a dentist to get everything
checked out since the right side of my mouth would suffer
the blunt of the radiation. He said that two teeth wouldn’t
survive the therapy and removed them. At the time, I didn’t
think much about it when he said, we’ll take care of the rest
after therapy. Little did I know how much destruction my
mouth would go through to be declared cancer free.
I went to The Christie Cancer Centre. The number one
cancer centre in Europe to have consultations and get set
up with schedules for my treatment. That first day, my wife
and I met dietitians, nurses, and a speech therapist. He
gave me exercises to do with my tongue and mouth and
how to “train” myself how to swallow.
That part of it seemed silly. I knew how to swallow and how to use my tongue. Yet, having been a caretaker, I did the exercises
three times a day, just so my wife wouldn’t worry about me not doing my part.
Then the hard part came. Getting a mask made for radiation. You had to be perfectly still during treatment and the mask made it
happen. I never knew how claustrophobic I was until they made that mask. I hated that thing. Every treatment strapped to a table
waiting to be zapped and then praying the treatment team would come right back in to take it off.
As far as the treatment went, the first half (15 days) was relatively easy. Radiation was going OK and while chemo mad me
nauseous I was still eating good, in fact, I even gained a little weight. The worst side effect of chemo was getting zits. I felt like a
teenager, my whole face and chest were covered with them.
The second half of treatment was where the challenges came and after treatment was done, doctors told me that the second half is
what destroys people. It took away my will to fight. I wanted to quit. I couldn’t eat because I no longer could swallow. My saliva
glands were gone, making it even more difficult to swallow.
By the 19th treatment I was put in the hospital and given a feeding tube. I was losing weight quickly and so much hated every
aspect of my treatment. I hated having that mask placed on me and no longer could voice my concerns as my voice left me. They
kept me pretty heavily sedated which helped get me through treatment but I never totally relaxed until my treatment was done for the
In England, there is no such thing as a private room (unless you are dying). My room held four beds. Two on each side of the
room. Everyday, the nurse would come in and give us our medication and two guys struggled mightily with it. The reason? They
never did the exercises that the speech therapist gave us when treatment began. Those exercises didn’t seem so silly now!
When treatment ended I got to ring the bell and head home. It was the first time I stepped outside in over two weeks. I spent
Christmas and New Year’s in the hospital, ye going home meant nothing to me. I was just so weak and “beat up” that I didn’t care
much about anything. The warmth of the hospital to the cold of outside had a nasty effect on me. My first half hour being home
was spent in the bathroom vomiting.
That was just the beginning of hell. For the next month I lived on high protein drinks and odd bits of food that I could swallow. My
saliva glands were gone, so I had no moisture in my mouth to help chew and swallow. At nights I slept with a jug of water next to me,
waking up numerous times with a mouth that felt like it was full of sand. Which made my throat sore from the dryness and added to
the difficulty of swallowing.
It took nearly six weeks after treatment ended that I began to eat regularly again. At that time though, eating was a challenge. I
would choke at least once at every meal. Which brought back the exercises the speech therapist gave me. I can’t say it enough,
those exercises they want you to do at home? Do them, they will become your best friends!
Also after six weeks, I was back at the dentist, now having more teeth pulled. Without saliva glands, my teeth were doomed. The
teeth would just break off at the gum line. I had no pain from it. I would go and he would pull out the roots. He said, that I felt no
pain because the teeth were dead. He described them as brittle, a perfect word, and in time they would all probably need to be
removed. In nearly two years since the end of treatment I have had 12 teeth pulled and recently had another one break, so it will
soon be 13 teeth pulled.
The dentist told me that a person can have the worst dental hygiene and have a lot of saliva and their teeth will survive. Yet, you
can have great dental hygiene with no saliva, and your teeth will fail.
Coming up on two years and my voice is back to as close to normal as it was. I did regain some saliva, but I still sleep with a jug of
water next to me and wherever I go I take a bottle of water with me. The weight that I lost (35 pounds) is back. And though my
appetite has returned there are some things which make eating difficult and can lead me to choking.
When food is just out of the oven is the perfect time to eat. Once it starts cooling down, forget it, I’ll chew and chew and chew and
yet I can’t swallow it. Spicy foods are hit and miss, as are acidic foods. I love a good burger, but mince meat can be a challenge. If I
add some ketchup, on those bad days, it makes it feel like my tongue is on fire and splitting in two. I no longer can eat rice or white
chicken. No matter how it is prepared or cooked it just to dry to get down.
When all this started I thought I would be able to hold down my job and keep working. My doctors were against it and told me that I
needed to spend all my energy on the treatment that lied ahead. I listened to them and am glad that I did. There was no way I could
have worked. Even when I was hospitalized I barely had the energy to get out of bed for treatments.
When done with treatment I was told that throat cancers are usually found when they have progressed throughout the body. (I was
Stage IV) and while survival rates are very good, the treatment is extremely difficult because it affects the mouth, tonsils, teeth,
tongue, saliva glands, and neck and who knows what else. If you’re going through treatment, don’t be hard on yourself. Rest. You’
ll need all the strength you can get. Don’t worry about a job. It will be there when you are better. This is the time to rely on your
spouse. Mine was the true hero though all this. She gave me the support I needed, as well as a kick in the pants when needed.
She kept our home running and made sure our bills were paid, and everything was as close to normal as could be.
When it is all said and done with, you’ll be amazed at how strong you are. And you’ll be amazed how strong your spouse is. It’s time
to give up control and let someone else be in charge...