My last post was written some time ago, a few months back when the pain I was experiencing was off the Richter scale.
Fast forward to August 2019 and for my birthday I received the results of my PET scan. It was my first 3 monthly scan and I was keen to know whether the surgery, Chemotherapy and Radiotherapy had done its job. So I asked the regular Oncology nurse to give me a call once the results had come in.
As it happens I was at my accountant the day the results came in. The nurse called me as I sat in my car after the appointment . Reading directly from the Benson report, I suggested she call me back when she’d had time to read it and make sense of it. So with that she hung up saying I’ll call you back in 10 minutes.
Four hours later my phone rang, “are you at home she asked …Yes, I thought this isn’t good. Are you alone? Just tell me the result of the scan please. I was alone, as it happens.
My notes verbatim from the conversation went as follows: – The results indicate that it’s worse than better, it’s indicating that the areas are bigger and brighter than before, it’s worse on the left side where the surgery was done and the right hand side is worse again. This all needs to be discussed in the MDT specialist meeting but it appears there is more residual cancer there but does need further discussion. The treatment has not worked as we would have liked and it’s not curable at this point, we could try Immunotherapy and we are not sure of the life expectancy.
As you can imagine I was not sure how to take this information as I sat alone silently staring at the floor. What does this mean? what do I do? I was gob smacked, this, although serious, was meant to be a process to get rid of my cancer. I did the surgery, the chemo and the radiotherapy ( trust me you don’t do this unless you have to) and here they are telling me none of it has worked. I called a friend or two and they were at my side within minutes.
We sat and discussed my options. What options you have with a death sentence I am not sure, but mine involved spending my super and travelling to Greece to start with. We sat in my garden and pondered life, I pondered no life and how the hell do you stay motivated with this type of news. I called my various siblings and told them the news. Silence is what I remember most. That pause, gut wrenching silence of the abyss.
Another friend, who was parked on the side of the road in the country at the time said to me ” Who is this nurse to give you this information, over the phone no less?” I admit, the thought crossed my mind too. We cried, we talked, we sat with it. It turned out that I sat with it for a week and a half before seeing my surgeon. I took my brother and a friend to the appointment. In the interim other friends rallied and managed to get me an appointment with a well known Naturopath in town. Ian was booked up for nearly a year, I said well I’ll take your next available, I may not be alive by then, but pencil me in! The ‘who knows who’ wheels turned and I miraculously had an appointment next week. Thank you RW & DB x.
Not withstanding my head space, it was really interesting to see my blood under the microscope. Ian does the whole assessment of blood right there in front of you and explains the vitals and then how he’s going to help my immune system. I had at this point decided that OK, I have let the white coats do their bit, now I do mine. What was it about my immune system that allowed this to happen in the first place? We got to work on my blood and I got to work on my diet, remembering I have a stomach PEG and no way to administer food other than by a liquid form.
Back to my surgeon appointment, Andrew said “Don’t jump the gun Von, it doesn’t look like cancer he said, whilst gloved fingers probe the rear of my tongue. An endoscopy later he thinks it’s still just inflammation from surgery and radiotherapy but to make sure we will do another biopsy. Andrew did not sugar coat it he started to tell me what a biopsy would involve and I stopped him. It was barbaric, I was to find out much later it would put my recovery back months.
I can tell you the coffee after that appointment was pretty light hearted in comparison to how I had been the nearly two weeks prior. I had hope. A very tiny slither of hope.
I had a week to wait for more surgery. I had no idea what was about to happen. I thought I’d fought hard already, ha – that was just the preliminary warm up for what was about to transpire.
This, most definitely, was not on the bucket list for 2019 – for someone who loves food and all that it represents, life can be unbelievably unfair at times. Given my absolute lack of knowledge on this disease and the side affects – I will update where I can. Here’s my story …
I had managed to travel throughout Vietnam for 3 months aided with nasal spray, aspirin, high dose pain killers from home, anti inflammatories, anti hystemanes, antibiotics and nasal steroids. Somewhere in the back of mind I kept thinking “something is not right here” and despite numerous doctors visits both at home and overseas, I kept being told it’s chronic tonsillitis.
I went to hospital in Saigon and had an Endoscopy with an ENT specialist and was told it’s nothing sinister. At the time I recall saying to my family & friends that I was so relieved it wasn’t cancer. I had my ears cleaned, ate a lot of Strepsils and soldiered on.
I had spent so much time preparing and getting organised to live in Asia and to experience something different that being sick was certainly not part of the plan. I pushed on until the first VISA run. It was about this time I realised how tough a person can be, how much pain you can live with without having an answer, how much pain you will endure until you can’t.
I had planned a month in Indonesia to set up my business and get some fresh air time away from Ho Chi Minh City. Thinking I would then return to Vietnam to start working on some food and hospitality activity I had put in to place with new contacts. I was tired and really running on empty and thought …perhaps I just need rest. Fast forward to mid October 2018 and I am lying pool side having a beer in Bali, weighing up work decisions when I discover that one of my nearest and dearest has had a heart attack back in Australia.
For whatever reason it jolted me into action, I immediately booked a flight home within the next 24 hours. I wasn’t thinking about me so much as thinking perhaps I could help at home. I was on that flight, excess luggage and no plan …other than to get home and see what I could do and what I could do about my very sore throat. I was thinking a tonsillectomy at worst. Better to do that in Australia if it came to that.
I arrived in Australia on Sunday morning and was in with my local GP by Tuesday morning. That week saw me in with an ENT specialist, PET Scan, MRI the list of “tests” goes on – but oh how efficient, how I thanked my stars I had private health insurance (surgeon/wait time) and that it all happened as fast as it possibly could. My friends rallied and made decisions for me, there is a lot of information and when the surgeon said “viral tonsil cancer” – squamous cells, biopsy will determine I had all but tuned out. This was meant to be a simple tonsillectomy in my mind. I was in denial.
I really liked my surgeon Andrew Foreman, what a job to have to tell people this outcome. I always had someone else with me, mostly my best mate of forty odd years, to take notes and pick up on all the detail I just wasn’t taking in. I recall saying “I just want the pain gone” – what do we do and in what order to make that happen? “
Surgery, then 6 weeks of radiotherapy and chemotherapy. Andrew removed the tumour through my mouth via a newly acquired robot at Calvary Hospital. A two part operation that involved not only removing the tumour but also removing 25-30 lymph nodes in my neck. For reasons beyond me, I thought this was going to be a walk in the park, I thought I’d be up kick boxing again in weeks and absolutely no thought given to not eating food again for a very long time.
A drain in my neck, a stiff shoulder and an asymmetrical everything I was later to find out. I spent twenty days in Calvary and a week of that in ICU. I have never been in hospital before and certainly never had an operation. It was so new to me, I didn’t understand anything and no idea what to expect. This is a girl who fainted when she had her ears pierced. I had never broken anything, never been sick, no surgery no operation … no freedom. I was scared.
Andrew removed a tumour roughly 19x15x17mm although he suspected it was bigger, and it was when he got in there. My left tonsil removed, my right tonsil removed and 1/3rd of my tongue. When I woke up in recovery I couldn’t speak, couldn’t swallow and awoke in the dark. It was very frightening, nursing staff kept asking me if I was alright? Can I get you something? I didn’t know it at the time but I was in shock. I just sat there not knowing what to do, couldn’t move, couldn’t communicate. I had a nasal feeder, a catheter, a lymph node drain, surgical stockings, spit bags ..it was all so foreign to me and I was a long way from even getting to the ward.
So many bodily functions were taken away from me. You know you are incapacitated when nursing staff start doing everything for you and I mean everything. You just have to swallow pride and let them. For those that know me and know I am pretty independent this came as a major shock to me. Universally this is known as Head and Neck cancer, not throat cancer and the major difference between this and the better known Breast and Prostate cancer is that you can’t eat. Everything you consume is through a nasal feeder and or a peg in the stomach. This news did not sit well with me and I was frightened. What if ? – Surely you can’t live your life with a stomach peg? Turns out you can and turns out I refuse to.
Getting through Christmas Day with a stomach peg turns out to be a challenge in itself … one I hope not to repeat in 2019.
Robotic Trans oral surgery Oropharyngectomy and right tonsillectomy , L) neck dissection and selective arterial ligation.
Transoral robotic surgery is a procedure to remove mouth and throat cancers in which a surgeon uses a sophisticated, computer-enhanced system to guide the surgical tools. Transoral robotic surgery gives the surgeon an enhanced view of the cancer and surrounding tissue. Using a robotic system to guide the surgical tools allows for more-precise movements in tiny spaces and the capability to work around corners.
When compared with more-traditional procedures, transoral robotic surgery tends to result in a quicker recovery and fewer complications for people with mouth and throat cancers.By Mayo Clinic Staff
It is the end of summer – March 1 2019, I have been in treatment for an entire season. I missed summer in Australia and as at March 1, 2019 I am now officially finished my treatment. Radio therapy and Chemo therapy. I had six cycles of Cisplatin and no interruptions – my magnesium levels held out too, I am really grateful for that because that bit really hurt. Felt like someone whacking my forearm with a base ball bat. The radiation was relentless. My blood platelets held out and getting bloods to the oncologist proved tricky for me – Code Blue Princess (CBP) I named myself. I opted not to have a port put in but a cannular every week for blood, ready for the Monday chemo session.
Lack of veins, dehydration, being a massive scaredy cat all contributed to CBP – in the end I opted (begged with tears) for Day Care centre to do my bloods rather than the ‘normal way’…
Every day (except for weekends) they radiate/burn you with pin point accuracy. Before they start the radiation they make you a mask to ensure they are only treating the areas that require treatment. I brought my mask home after the final session. I am going to grow succulents in it.
So the end of treatment I convalesce, they say the two weeks immediately following treatment is the worst, they weren’t wrong. In between manic bouts of acid reflux, heat burn, nausea, peeling skin that blisters, no food, no appetite and mucous thick enough to build a mud brick house … you try and get better. I have lost nearly 7 kgs since leaving Vietnam, but maintaining at the moment. No alcohol, caffeine for over 3 months and that also means no food either, I was managing soup for a while but that all goes backwards during radiotherapy and chemo. I have no appetite and the smell of cooking food is hit and miss with me. Today is day 4 post treatment.
I have had better days but the worst day was day 3 for me. I continue to look to the horizon and continue to work on plan B. It will show its hand in good time. To my wonderful friends both old and new and my family – thank you from the bottom of my heart for your cards, flowers, notes of encouragement, taxi services, entertainment, and general love you have cast my way. I still need plenty of time to get better and to be able to share pork crackling, a lamb burger with beetroot relish, pepperoni pizza (kidding I’ll never be able to eat that again) crusty bread with butter, toast and a cup of tea. Milestones to work towards