A few days later I went back into hospital for the operation to have the infected lymph nodes in my neck removed. This was a slightly more serious procedure than a simple biopsy, and so I had prepared myself for a few days away from my wife and the boys.
I can’t fault the hopital’s efficiency: I presented myself to the ward sister at 8:00 sharp, and was wheeled down to surgery at 9:00. Again the awful descent into anaesthetic blackness amongst pictures of Pooh and Piglet, and again the frantic worries about what might happen to me whilst under. As it turned out, I had good reason to be worried.
I had no recollection of anyone mentioning it to me, although they might well have done – I’d absorbed so much information recently my mind was starting to feel like a saturated sponge – but they had considered doing a full neck section, which involves removing all the lymph nodes in the neck. As a certain amount of tissue is removed with them, it’s a rather disfiguring operation. Luckily, McArdle, being a sensible man, not prone to making hasty or panicked decisions, in the end opted to take out just the infected nodes and leave the rest of my neck intact.
Coming to again in the ward, to the sound of gently beeping machines and the whirring of air-conditioning, once again I tried out my voice – a small clearing of the throat. It hurt, but I made a noise. Thank God, I thought. Then I tried to turn over onto my side and get back to sleep, but every time I moved I felt a tugging at my neck. I reached up to feel two tubes, one inserted either side, just below the insicions made to remove the nodes. I dimly remembered a nurse telling me that I’d have drainage tubes inserted after the operation, to help reduce swelling and so facilitate healing. Great, I thought, now I’m a real patient. I realised I could no longer observe those poor souls lying in bed hooked up to softly blinking machines, or attached to drips, which they wheeled around the hospital in their dressing gowns and slippers, with the same air of superior detachment. Now I was one of them.
I fell back into an uncomfortable sleep, and next woke with an urgent need to pee. But how did I make it to the loo when I was wired up to the bed? I summoned the night nurse and informed her of my need. She produced what looked like a reconstituted industrial cardboard bottle with a wide, angled neck and gave it to me.
‘Just leave it on the bedside table when you’ve finished, and I’ll come and collect it later,’ she said with a breezy smile, closing the curtains around the bed.
I’ve never been able to pee lying down, and so, getting up awkwardly, and carefully, to a kneeling position on the bed, I relieved myself into the cardboard bottle. Half way through, the nurse pushed through the curtains.
‘Oh, I thought you’d finished – your call light’s on.’
‘It wasn’t me,’ I said, trying to cover myself.
But the nurse stepped forward and pulled the remote call switch out from under my knee. ‘Easily done,’ she said.
‘Oh, sorry,’ I blushed.
‘That’s all right. Just let me know when you’ve done.’ And she left again, leaving me embarrassed and, I don’t know why, but a little ashamed too.
Little by little my dignity was being stripped away.
I awoke the next morning and looked around at my fellow inmates. Opposite was a man with a violent blue, green and black bruise on his swollen neck. Next to him was a short, energetic man who spent most of his time out of bed, strolling around the ward in nothing but his underpants, completely unabashed. He also had the disturbing habit of feeding himself quite openly through his PEG. I watched with voyeuristic interest as he attached the feed to the little plastic tube protruding from his belly and squirted his breakfast straight into his stomach. So that’s what a PEG looks like, I thought. I didn’t relish the thought of having one myself.
But even more disturbing was the man who occupied the bed next to mine. He had just had a tracheotomy. His voice box had been removed and where it had once been there was a blood-encrusted hole in his neck. This was it – the closest I had ever come to the thing I feared even more than death. I instinctively shied away from it. I didn’t want to look at him or have anything to do with him. I just wanted to get away – to be anywhere but here, confronted by the thing I dreaded.
What I couldn’t get over was his cheerfulness. He seemed to have a smile for everyone, even me. I’m sure if I’d been through the same procedure I would have been unbearably grumpy. But he just carried on as if losing the ability to speak was but a minor inconvenience. Learn from him, a little voice seemed to whisper in my ear, learn from his courage – life hasn’t stopped for him. But still I couldn’t come to terms with the thought of that magical piece of living equipment, able to produce the most startling array of sounds, invoking terror or tenderness, being taken away from me.

I was soon back home with two very neat scars on my neck. My treatment was set to start in six weeks and I had two weeks’ holiday in Provence to look forward to.
I actual fact, I would have gladly exchanged the holiday for having the treatment start immediately. But in the end, the trip to France was one of the best holidays ever.
We had booked a little house with a pool just outside a town called….. It was a fabulous location – the house was set high on a hill with views over the surrounding, softly undulating countryside, stretching all the way to the distant mountains of the Haute Pyrenees.
My naturopath, Roderick, had put me on a strict regime of vegetable juice three times a day, no wheat, no sugar and no alcohol, and told me I had to follow the Hay diet (Food Combining – eating carbohydrates separately from protein). I didn’t much relish the prospect of being in France and unable to drink wine or sample any of the fabulous bread on offer.
However, after a few days on this regime, while the sun shone and we all relaxed by the pool, I began to feel like a million dollars. I was brimming with energy and my sense of optimism – which had disappeared with the news of the cancer – returned with a vengeance.
I began to see the cancer as a teacher, telling me that I was living my life in a way that no longer nurtured me. I also began to understand my fellow hospital inmate’s cheerfulness. I saw that life was such a wonderful gift: there was so much to learn, so much to see, so much to do. Even if I had to lose my voice, I became determined to live, if only for my family.
Posted by AndySecombe 12:25:38 26.06.2007;
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