So now we knew. In some strange way I felt relieved; at least all uncertainty had been removed, and the knowledge, awful though it was, was easier to deal with than the ‘what ifs’ I’d been living with for the past few weeks. But it would still take me some time to face up to the reality of what I’d got. And then there were the boys, how did we tell them?
As it happened, the boys were off school on their half-term holiday, and not wanting to expose them to the hundred and one horrors that can be seen inside a hospital, on the way to the meeting with the registrar, we’d dropped them off at the house of a friend of ours called Hazel who, coincidentally, had just come through a long bout of chemotherapy for breast cancer. Caroline and I drove back to Hazel’s in numb silence; I don’t think we exchanged a single word until we got there.
Caroline parked the car and we sat for a moment, staring out through the windscreen.
‘I don’t think I’ll come in,’ I said, not looking at her.
‘No, that’s OK,’ she said. ‘You stay here and read the paper. I’ll only be a minute.’

I picked up the Telegraph we’d bought in the hospital shop, and Caroline got out and went into the house, leaving me alone for the first time since my diagnosis.
I stared, unseeing, at the front page of the newspaper for some moments. I had cancer. My mind squirmed at the mention of the word, and tried desperately to comprehend the situation. It failed miserably, preferring instead to try and dodge the issue, arguing that cancer was a disease that only other people got; that surely there had been some mistake; telling me that when we got home there’d be a message from the hospital saying that they’d confused my results with somebody else and that actually I was clear. But I knew there’d been no mistake. Suddenly, I felt very alone and very frightened. Tears pricked my eyes and rolled down my cheeks. Soon, I was sobbing like a baby. I felt a hand on my arm through the open window.
‘How’re you doing, mate?’ It was Duncan, Hazel’s husband: a bluff South African vet with a wicked sense of humour and one of the nicest people you could ever hope to meet. I tried to hide my tear-stained face behind the newspaper as I hurriedly wiped my eyes. At least he’ll understand, I thought, having just been through the whole cancer thing with his wife.
‘Oh, Duncan, I can’t believe it.’
‘You’ll get through it, matey. You’ve got to fight like hell and never give up. The cancer doctor nowadays, they’re boffins; they’ve got all this state-of-the-art technology at their disposal. It’s amazing what they can do.’
I nodded, dumbly. I’d heard that a lot of people beat cancer these days; that it was no longer the death sentence it had once been, but I still couldn’t quite believe it and it scared the life out of me. ‘Yeah,’ I said, ‘I’ll be fine. I’ll get through it.’
He squeezed my arm. ‘Anything you need, any time at all, just call.’
‘Thanks, Duncan.’
‘I mean it.’
‘I know you do.’
Then he was gone, leaving me with my thoughts.
The boys emerged from the house a few moments later and got quietly into the back seat of the car. I could tell from their serious faces that Caroline had told them.
I felt Matthew’s hand on my shoulder. ‘I’m sorry, daddy.’
I reached back and patted his arm. ‘I’ll be all right, don’t worry.’
Then little Charles leaned forward and rested his head on my shoulder. ‘You’ll be fine,’ he said.
I wanted to break down and cry all over them, sweep them up in my arms and kiss them and tell them that I didn’t want to die; that I didn’t want to leave them; that they were the most precious things in the world to me. But now didn’t seem quite the time to terrify them with a show of Welsh histrionics. Instead I fought back my tears and turned and looked at them.
‘Yeah, I’ll be fine,’ I said.

The next few days passed in a sort of blur. I don’t really remember very much about them. I know the sun was shining because I erected a sort of badminton net for the boys in the garden, out of two climbing rose supports and a roll of gaffer tape. I also remember playing with the puppies in the garden. Our Border Terrier, Misty had presented us with a litter a couple of weeks before I’d gone in for my biopsy. They were so full of life, so eager, so curious, that sometimes, joyous as they were, I couldn’t but help that brood that as they began their lives, I might be coming to the end of mine.
But, in the face of such relentless excitement and general puppyishness, this was, thankfully, a train of thought that I could never really plumb the depths of.
The sunny days passed and, so Caroline tells me, I behaved like a normal human being: mowing the grass, swimming in the pool, even doing a bit of writing, but I’m sure I felt nothing like normal. The one thing I do remember with absolute clarity is how it feels to live with a possible death sentence hanging over one. Some days I was fine about it: after all, what is death, but a part of life? What was there to be scared of? If, as I believe, death is just the opening of a door, why should I fear it?
Yet on other days, I would be consumed with fear: of leaving the boys without a father; Caroline without a husband; fearful of death itself. What was on the other side, I wondered? Eternal darkness I could cope with. But what if the Catholics were right, and hellfire and damnation awaited in a place of eternal torment?
That I even entertained such a thought was a measure of how unbalanced my mind had become.
Finally the time came to meet the team that were, hopefully, going to cure me. We met in the room where my surgeon, Mr McArdle, had first spotted the lesion on my tongue. Understandably, it had difficult memories for me, which I hoped would eventually be dispelled by the good people assembled there. And it was a full house. Apart from me, Caroline and McArdle, there was the head of the Oncology unit, Dr. Pat McCleod, a plump woman with a bit of a twinkle; the ubiquitous Maggie Jarvis; a nutritionist called Sue; another doctor I knew only as Vee Jay, and various others whose function, as yet, I was unaware of.
McArdle outlined his plan. First he was going to remove the swollen and infected lymph nodes in my neck (now I had one on each side – a matching set) to, as he put it, ‘remove the bulk of the cancerous material’. He reiterated that he would not be touching the primary cancer, because the procedure would be too difficult and too intrusive. Dealing with the actual growth on my tongue he would leave up to the oncology team. Over to Dr. McCleod…
What she was suggesting was a course of radiotherapy over six weeks, supplemented by weekly chemotherapy. The radiotherapy I reckoned I could cope with, knowing little about the process or its effects, but I’d heard all about chemotherapy and the havoc it wrought on the system, not only from my friend Hazel, but also from, Alison, another friend and ex-cancer sufferer, whose children go to my sons’ school and with whom I sing in the school’s chapel choir.
The chemotherapy, Dr. McCleod asserted would only be ‘mild’, assuring me that most people weren’t too badly affected by it, but the radiotherapy, she said, was pretty serious. McArdle added that it wasn’t a ‘walk in the park’, which proved to be rather a large understatement.
Dr. McCleod then tried to describe what the treatment may do to my body. She may well have gone into great detail about possible symptoms and side effects, but all I heard was the phrase ‘loss of function of salivary glands.’
‘I beg your pardon?’
‘Oh yes, I’m afraid you’ll go from being a McDonald’s man to a Pot Noodle man,’ Dr. McCleod quipped with a smile.
But I wasn’t laughing. ‘I’ll what?’ I said. ‘I’m going to lose my salivary glands?’
I knew from school biology lessons that saliva began the whole business of digestion, and that it aided taste by starting the breakdown of the food and releasing its flavour. However, it seemed that there was nothing that could be done to protect my salivary glands, important to the gourmet in me though they were. The treatment would irradiate my neck and tongue, and because my salivary glands were right in the line of fire, it was either a question of curing the cancer and living, or saving my salivary glands and letting the cancer grow, with inevitable results.
‘Most people cope pretty well,’ Dr. McCleod assured me. ‘You can get around the senasation of dry mouth by always carrying a bottle of water around with you.’
‘What about taste?’ I asked.
‘You will lose your sense of taste, I’m afraid, but only temporarily,’ Dr McCleod replied, a little too easily.
Then came another shock.
‘Has anyone talked to you about a peg?’ someone asked.
‘Peg?’ Caroline and I replied in unison.
Dr. McCleod explained. ‘As the treatment progresses, your throat will swell and become very sore, as will your tongue, making it uncomfortable to eat. So what we usually suggest in these cases is the insertion of a peg – a feeding tube placed through the abdominal wall into the stomach.’
Sue took up the story. ‘It’s very important you keep up your protein intake, especially when in recovery, as this will help you rebuild tissue damaged by the cancer and the treatment.’
I thought having cancer was bad enough, but no, it seemed the treatment was going to add insult to injury. I was going to have to be fed through a tube because my tongue and throat were going to swell up unbearably, and at the end of the treatment I’d wind up with a permanent dry mouth because my salivary glands had been destroyed, and the likelihood was that I’d never recover my nuances of taste pre-cancer. Eating would never be the same again. The future looked bleak.
‘So,’ I began tentatively, ‘if I say yes to this treatment (and at the time I saw no other option) what’s the prognosis?’
Dr McCleod answered without even blinking. ‘With this type of cancer, and the treatment we’re proposing, the cure rates are fifty to sixty percent.’
They didn’t seem like great odds, but I’ve never set much store by statistics, knowing they can be manipulated in all sorts of negative ways. Now, with those statistics telling me in cold figures I had a little better than an even chance of surviving, I began to rebel.
Damn’ the bloody statistics, I thought, I’m going to beat this thing.
Now I had something to fight against.
Posted by AndySecombe 12:24:29 26.06.2007;
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