Name – Chris Rea
Age – 53
Occupation – School Teacher
I was asked recently by Pam Cooper Secretary of the ‘Look A Head’ Cancer Campaign
to share my recent experience of my Head and Neck Cancer diagnosis and treatment.
Here we go!
I was diagnosed with Cancer of the left tonsil caused by the HPV virus in October 2017. Clearly quite a shock at the time and completely unexpected. For some months I had been feeling quite tired particularly after work – I simply put this down to over work and the fact that I was in my Fifties.
I went for a bike ride one evening and found a lump on my neck when I arrived home, it was quite solid but did not hurt. I thought it was a bite! The lump was still there so I went to see my Doctor who immediately referred me to the ENT unit at James Cook hospital. Mr. Shane Lester took a biopsy straight away and the following Friday I was given the shocking news that I had Stage 4 Cancer of the left tonsil. Frankly I didn’t even feel ill. The treatment started very quickly and I was fitted for my radiotherapy mask and the game was on! Eleven teeth were removed – Ouch! (I did have a steak the night before this and it will still be some time before I have another one) and I had a feeding PEG (feeding tube) inserted in my stomach.
Thirty – five treatments in a row combined with six chemotherapy treatments. –
You need all the support you can and boy did I get it!
I cannot speak more highly of the Oncologists, radiotherapy team and the nurses in the chemotherapy unit and a special mention for the incredibly patient speech and swallowing therapist Sarah Woodhead all surrounded by the fantastic McMillan Team – who continue to support me as they all do.
Throughout treatment lots of strange and uncomfortable things happen. Your taste vanishes and I have very limited taste even nine months later (my taste buds started disappearing one treatment in). It remains a huge source of frustration but why should I worry? I still struggle to swallow food like bread and meat, however I can eat most foods now – In April ’18 I was struggling to swallow water. Progress indeed!
During treatment you develop mouth ulcers and sores and these are there clearly to remind you of what you’re going through. Sometimes it is the smallest things that annoy you most. Constipation is horrid but it was a constant companion throughout. Feeding yourself Fortisip drinks constantly and a myriad of medicines pretty much occupies you most of the day – but you are pushed all the way. Ingrid the dietician was particularly helpful or ‘strict’ I am not sure which) but pulled me through it. I lost about three stones in weight and it was a battle to start putting weight on. You can’t put fish and chips in your feeding tube especially when it falls out and you have to see the ever cheerful PEG Nurse – Lauren who would sort you out.
When treatment finished I was warned that I would be at my most vulnerable – Really? – So I ended up in ‘Ward 14’ for ten days as I was very weak. Can’t remember much about that, other than it was a rubbish time. I couldn’t read a book because I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t eat, I struggled to go to the loo but I fought it all the way and wasn’t prepared to just give up – Too many places I want to
see still! – And too many people working hard for you, just show your appreciation and accept that you are part of a major team effort.
Slowly, gradually, painfully, you start to edge your way back. I craved normality so when you are told you are in remission, you double your efforts. I have returned to work and I have a gym instructor. Yes it is a struggle and dinner times are a nightmare. I lose my voice quite frequently and am constantly thirsty, however I am determined to battle on. In about two years I will be where I am in terms of recovery i.e. eating, tasting etc. It’s not a long way off and I take every day as it comes. Of course there is improvement, but be warned it is slow. Everybody is different and progresses at different speeds. I am happy to be alive and have changed my lifestyle considerably.
Being back at work is a challenge and there is still the spectre that the cancer may return. Embrace every day and try not to take life too seriously. You simply don’t know what’s around the corner. I wanted to write more and in more detail but I have a pile of books to mark!!!
PS. How people do this by themselves is beyond me. I had the greatest family on the planet supporting me. I am beyond grateful