Soon it was time to don the gown and get into bed. I was wheeled down to surgery where, nervous and trembling (I have never liked the idea of general anaesthetic) I waited in an ante room to have the drug that would send me to sleep pumped into my veins. I tried to make conversation with the doctors and nurses attending me:
‘Oh, you’ve just had the builders in? Did you have much done?’
‘Oh, don’t tell me about the mess!’
‘And so demanding. All that tea!’
‘I couldn’t get rid of mine – in the end I had to give them an ultimatum: get out or you won’t get paid!’
It was a surreal experience. I was facing an operation to determine whether or not I had cancer – a life or death situation as far as I was concerned – and here we all were carrying on as normal, pretending it wasn’t happening. To cap this bizarre moment, a surgeon popped his head around the door.
‘Hello Andy! What are you doing here?’
It was a parent I knew from my sons’ school.
‘We must stop meeting like this!’ I quipped as cheerily as I could under the circumstances.
He had the decency to laugh. ‘Well, you’re in good hands, I know they’ll look after you. Catch you later.’ And he disappeared.
Being greeted by a top surgeon I hardly knew as an old friend while lying, half-naked and helpless in a bed connected up to various drips and bleeping machines was a new experience for me. But having any serious illness is like that; suddenly people you hardly know become your friends, while old friends tend to melt away from fear of somehow being contaminated.
Although, having said that, most of the friends my wife and I have met down here have been absolutely wonderful: the warmth of their love and support bringing us both to tears at times. And also, being Devon people, they don’t stop at offering only wishy-washy moral and emotional support, but are willing and eager to roll up their sleeves and muck in in a deeply comforting practical way – like picking the boys up from school and keeping them occupied until Caroline can get round to collect them, offering their house cleaners and gardeners for free, putting us in touch with doctors and healers who might be able to help, even making packed lunches for me to take down to Derriford. Never have we felt so cared for.
‘Ready now, Andrew?’ It was the anaesthetist.
I nodded.
‘I’m just going to insert a tube so that we can put you to sleep.’
After a bit of fumbling and the liberal slapping of both of my hands to find a suitable vein, I was warned of a ‘Sharp scratch,’ and something that felt like a barbed, red-hot poker was shoved into the back of my hand. I winced.
‘Sorry. Now, I’m going to put a mask over your face. This hasn’t got any anaesthetic in it, it’s just oxygen, and I want you to take big deep breaths. That’s it. Now then, here comes the anaesthetic.’
I could feel myself slipping backwards. It was a floaty, relaxing experience, something both familiar and strange at the same time. But then, panic. My last thought as I drifted down into the deep, dark netherworld of general anaesthetic was that when the surgeon began poking around inside my throat he would find something terrible lurking there; something life-threatening that the initial exploratory examination hadn’t revealed. Perhaps a giant tumour wrapped like a malevolent black hand around my larynx. All at once the old fear emerged again – the surgeon would have no choice but to remove it and I would wake up without a voice. But my rising panic dissolved into the blackness and the next thing I knew was waking up in the recovery room with a nurst fussing over me, assuring me it was ‘all over now.’
No, it’s only just beginning, I thought.
Almost immediately, I must have dozed off again, because some time later I gradually came to back on the ward. It was the middle of the night and in the gloom I slowly became aware of the strangely familiar sounds of a hospital at night: the humming of machines, a distant cough, and the slow, rhythmic breathing of my fellow inmates. Gradually I remembered what I was doing there and checked my throat for soreness. Swallowing wasn’t too bad, so I attempted a little cough. That too was partial success – it hurt, but at least I made a noise. Thank God, I thought, they haven’t removed my voice box.
I drifted back into sleep.

The next morning I waited anxiously to be discharged – I didn’t want to hang around all day with a bunch of sick people. After all, I wasn’t one of them; I wasn’t ill – I was just passing through.
Around 10 o’clock, my surgeon appeared. Apparently he’d been successful in what he wanted to achieve, but the results wouldn’t be back from the lab for ten days. On top of this, he was going on holiday and was off, sailing around the Greek Islands for two weeks.
‘I’m in the wrong profession,’ I joked. But looking more closely at his tired eyes and hunched shoulders, his general air of a fortress under siege, I immediately reconsidered.
When he left, Maggie, my new-found friend, gently informed me that they wouldn’t keep me in suspense for two whole weeks, and as soon as they had the results, they’d call and let me know.
That afternoon I went home and slipped into the weirdest kind of limbo, having the same conversation with myself over and over again.
‘So, do I have cancer?’
‘I don’t know.’
‘I feel fine.’
‘People with cancer always say that.’
‘But surely I’d sense something?’
‘Calm down and wait until the results are through, there’s nothing you can do anyway.’
‘I’ll bet the doctors have an idea, they’re just not telling me anything.’
‘They don’t know either – they’re waiting for the results too.’
‘But I feel fine!’ And the whole thing would begin all over again.
The only way to deal with the constant nagging internal questioning was to split myself in two. No matter what I did, a part of me would continue to worry, so I decided to give that part of me its head and let it fret away to its heart’s content, while the rest of me carried on ‘as normal’ – writing my book, playing cricket with the boys, mowing the lawn.
But I can’t actually say that during this time my life felt anything like normal. That frightened, shaky part of me would break through at the most inopportune moments – especially at that time of quiet reflection which my wife and I both cherish: TEATIME, completely ruining the experience for both of us. The nights too were becoming increasingly crowded with dark, unnameable terrors.
So, right in the middle of this uncertain time came the long-delayed trip to see Grandma and celebrate her eightieth. Caroline kindly gave me a get-out, but the thought of staying home alone, with nothing for company but my cold fears, which even wine could not quell, was not an attractive proposition. It’ll be a diversion, I told myself. In the end it turned into a bit of an ordeal.
The journey was its usual mix of frayed tempers and tears, but at last we arrived at Grandma’s to a wonderfully warm welcome. Barbara’s husband had died the previous year from cancer, and so she understood a little of what we were all going through and could not have been more sympathetic. Having been promoted in her eyes from ‘useful male’ to ‘potential cancer patient’, I was allowed off my usual household duties of fixing wobbly shelves, replacing lightbulbs and easing sticking drawers. And while Caroline made supper and Grandma played with the boys, I put my feet up with the Telegraph. I could get used to this, I thought.
But I can’t say I actually enjoyed this new-found life of ease. Given the choice between never having to deal with the whole cancer issue and running round Barbara’s flat fixing light bulbs – give me the light bulbs every time.
I was in danger of sinking into a morose and self-centered reverie, where all roads lead to death or disfigurement. And why not? I told myself. After all, I potentially have cancer – I’m allowed a little bit of self-pity.
But it didn’t help. Nothing did. There was no escape from the awful, nagging question which dogged me constantly: Do I really have cancer? That simple phrase came between me and my life, took away my ability to act; to feel, wrapping me in a stifling, black-as-night shroud. Everywhere I turned I saw my own demise – or worse. Something told me I was going to be no fun on this trip.

Posted by AndySecombe 12:22:10 26.06.2007;
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