Interesting Times

A few months ago, whilst trying out strangle holds on myself as research for my current crime novel, I noticed a small lump in my neck.
I’ve got a gland up, I thought, as did my GP, whose opinion I sought some days later.
‘Don’t worry,’ he said. ‘It’ll probably go down.’
It didn’t. In fact, it remained stubbornly up and began to increase in size, until it was the size of a golf ball. I canvassed opinions from anyone with any medical knowledge at all, from dentists to vets.
‘It’s just a gland up,’ they all agreed. ‘It’ll probably go down.’
Finally, when the lump still hadn’t gone down and had began to ache uncomfortably, I insisted on seeing a specialist and was referred to the ENT department at Derriford Hospital.
‘You’ve got a gland up,’ said the registrar.
‘It’ll probably go down,’ I said cheerily, thinking that I’d get it in first this time, but he wasn’t so sure.
‘It’s a little large for that. How long has it been there?’
I did the math. ‘About three months now.’
‘Hmm. It’s probably nothing, but I’d like my boss to have a look at it.’
The consultant duly arrived and felt my neck. ‘It feels like you’ve an enlarged lymph node.’ That was a relief, by this time I was getting fed up with, you’ve got a gland up.
‘What do you think it is?’ I asked.
‘Hard to say. Probably nothing sinister, but we’ll have a proper look, just to make sure.
Inserting a long tube with a miniature camera on its end up my nose, and thence down my throat, the consultant studied the internal secrets of my larynx.
‘Ah,’ he said suddenly, and invited the registrar over. ‘Come and look at this.’
By now the temperature in the room had fallen several degrees and both men were looking serious.
‘What is it?’ I asked nasally.
After removing the tube from my nose, the consultant addressed me, his tone as grave as his expression.
‘You have a lesion on the back of your tongue.’
‘A lesion?’
‘Something like an ulcer. It could be perfectly benign, but it’s best to get it checked out, so I think you should come in tomorrow. We’ll do a biopsy and find out what exactly it is.’
‘Come in?’
‘To the hospital, it’ll mean spending the night.’
The sinister implications of them finding me a bed that quickly, in the middle of an NHS crisis, weren’t lost on me.
‘Could it be cancer?’ I asked.
I’d always had a stupid superstition about that word, as if the very utterance of it could somehow infect me with the disease. But now, speaking it in that hospital consulting room, it no longer felt like a distant, fearful thing, it felt close and familiar, and already a part of me.
The consultant nodded. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘It could be.’

When I got home after the surgery visit, my wife and children were waiting excitedly for me. We had been supposed to go to London to see my wife’s family and celebrate her mother’s eightieth birthday. But my news threw our plans into disarray. For reasons not entirely clear to them, my boys were going to miss out on a trip to London and were none too pleased. But things were soon smoothed over by the promise of a trip to the video hire shop – I think it was Spiderman, long a favourite superhero in our household.
Next morning, bright and early I presented myself at Derriford to be booked in for surgery. I was shown into a narrow room furnished with a peeling, vinyl-veneered desk, the ubiquitous computer, two metal-framed chairs, and an examination couch which took up most of the space in the already cramped office.
The nurse in charge asked sat me down and went through my details, starting with date of birth and address. As she went through the endless questionnaire, jotting down the details of my childhood illnesses (lots), current medication (none) and known allergies (none I know of), I let my eyes wander around the cluttered room. On the back of a door was a poster detailing the procedure for a full tracheotomy – the removal of the voice box – and excision of the tongue. A cold shiver went through me as I remembered a programme I’d seen years ago about throat cancer patients and their efforts to learn to speak using a method of producing words by regurgitating swallowed air – in other words, speaking by belching. I thought of Jack Hawkins and his brave struggle to continue acting after throat cancer had robbed him of his distinctive voice. It’s always been one of my biggest nightmares – no voice means no talking; no communicating spontaneously with another human being. And no tongue would mean no taste: a fate worse than death to a Taurean epicure like me. It would also, of course, mean the end to any useful acting career, as well as putting paid to another of the great joys of my life – singing.
My thoughts continued in this maudlin vein while I waited by my allotted bed to be brought a gown and told when the operation was to take place. Scanning the headlines of the newspaper I’d bought in the hospital shop, I decided I had enough tragedy of my own to cope with without having to deal with anyone else’s. I turned instead to the book I’d brought in with me: Dickens’, A Tale of Two Cities. I wasn’t sure my mental faculties were quite up to doing the great man’s book justice, but eager for any escape from the brutal surroundings of the hospital ward, I opened it and began to read. “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” I wanted to cry. No more than a dozen words in and already I was a mess. It was no good, I’d have to find some other diversion that didn’t play quite so eloquently on the emotions, otherwise I was in danger of being branded the ward’s cry-baby.
For the first time I looked around at the other men on the ward. Often, to pass the time in potentially boring situations like doctors’ waiting rooms or bus queues, I imagine the lives of my fellows; making up names and plunging them into exciting story lines. Thus, a man innocently listening to his i-pod might be transformed into alien agent Zac Frittel, monitoring communications from a spaceship poised high above the Earth, about to bring howling death down upon the planet. Likewise, a woman carrying a shopping bag could well, in my imaginary universe, turn into the evil Driffid, Tlaak Graal from Algonquin 5, newly arrived on Earth with supplies of the deadly mineral Trithium disguised as half a pound of parsnips and a dozen fruit buns.
Sadly, my efforts thus to free my imagination were hampered by the hospital’s insistence on writing each of my fellow patients’ names on a white board above the bed, together with any pertinent instructions, like nil by mouth. It was already too much information and just seemed to take all the fun out of it somehow. I sighed and turned to the crossword in the back of the newspaper.
After staring for a good twenty minutes at 3 down: Almost a whisper to a ‘T’ brings growth (six letters) I was greeted by a middle aged woman who introduced herself as a Macmillan nurse. Now, in my mind, Macmillan and cancer are synonymous, so my blood ran cold when she sat on my bed, looking grave.
Do they know something I don’t? I wondered.
‘This must be all a bit of shock,’ she said. ‘Bet you didn’t expect this.’ Not a comforting opening gambit in my opinion.
‘Well, they haven’t found anything yet,’ I said, trying to look on the bright side.
‘No, they haven’t,’ she had to agree, but then continued to frighten the living daylights out of me by saying that in these cases full tongue removal was an option worth looking at.
‘Gulp!’ I said, trying to lighten things up. She didn’t smile. ‘Look,’ I said. ‘Let’s wait for the biopsy results before we start making decisions like that.’
Seeing the real fear in my eyes, she probably realized she’d pushed things a little too far, and finally softened and smiled. ‘Don’t worry too much, we don’t actually offer that procedure in this hospital – we deem it too intrusive. All I’m saying is, if it were to promise the total removal of the cancer, it might be worth thinking about.’
With hindsight I see that she was trying to be kind, letting me know that death from this awful disease wasn’t inevitable. But it wasn’t death I was scared of. Compared to living my life without being able to speak, sing or enjoy a good meal, death seemed like a doddle. She was also trying to prepare me for the worst, laying out plainly and honestly before me what I might have to face in the future. But at that moment honesty was the last thing I needed. What I needed was the promise of a happy ending, someone to stroke my forehead and gently coo, ‘There, there.’ What I needed was the angel Clarence from that marvellous fable, It’s a Wonderful Life, to enfold me in his wings and tell me everything would work out for the best.
I looked back to my crossword and that troublesome 3 down: Almost a whisper to a ‘T’ brings growth (six letters) and suddenly the answer became absolutely clear – tumour.
Posted by AndySecombe 12:20:00 26.06.2007;
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