'Cancer is sneaky'

Paddy Hartdegen
Paddy Hartdegen
Photo supplied
Cancer is a life-changing disease and I should know as I have been through four of them so far and, while I’m now in remission, the experiences I’ve had provide me with first-hand knowledge of the realities of this disease.

Let me assure you that there are other life-changing diseases and conditions out there that may be worse than cancer but the problem is cancer’s sneaky.

Heart attacks are the heavyweight fighters. They punch you in the midriff and leave you crumpled on the floor. Strokes are almost as insidious as cancer, because they are ninja fighters, who stalk you in the alleys of your arteries and smash you with a blow, to your head or the neck that you couldn’t see. Like ninjas, strokes drop you instantly.  

But cancers, cancers are cold-war espionage killers who stalk about, subverting all the peaceful and decent cells you’ve had living with you all your life. They speak with a beautiful brogue, subtle, enchanting and endearing, making promises of “a better place for all” while using propaganda to convince those healthy cells that “now is the time” just as Barack Obama did in his election year.

“Now is the time” is cancer’s rallying cry and to those healthy, innocent cells who’ll believe the propaganda, the cry goes out. One by one they join the underground to fight, as true activists, to change their world. And yours.

Of course, you, as the host at this subversive party, have absolutely no idea what those propaganda-mongrels are doing. You don’t know they’re subverting all the healthy, loyal little critters who’ve stood by you so long. You feel fine, you look fine, you’re still randy and witty and working. Why worry?

Men are slovenly

People, doctors mainly, warn that you should have regular check-ups and for the most part, women are pretty good about this. They privately check their breasts for lumps, they go for their mammograms and bone density tests (post 40-ish) and they’re obedient. They try to live a healthy life. They even walk or run because they’re told to.

Men, on the other hand, are slovenly.

The only part of his body a man ever checks are his testes. They check these several times a day because they’re there or because they are “itchy”, “uncomfortable” or “need adjusting”.  Men check testes anywhere – in supermarkets, with hands in pockets; on the couch watching rugby; at the braai, with a beer in one hand and a crotch in the other.

But checking any other part of the body is, at best, unlikely.

Skin’s easy enough: if you notice a growth get it cut out. Two minutes and it’s back to golf.

Inside is where the real problems are: the stomach, colon, lungs, or all those other organs that keep us alive? They need to be checked professionally because you can’t whip out a portable MRI and say "Let’s see how my liver’s doing today. . ." or use a pocket-sized X-Ray machine while saying to yourself: "Wow, heavy night last night, wonder if my kidneys held up. . .?"

And the prostate’s the worst of all. I defy any man to finger-check his own prostate. I defy anyone to do so. The only time men check the prostate is under general anaesthetic or while bellowing like a buffalo corralled in a doctor’s room.

Cancer, the subversive disease, sneaks through your body, spreading propaganda to anyone who’ll listen. I know – my own cells were subverted.

Sore throat

My first cancer started as a little node at the very back of my mouth. I’d been suffering from a sore throat for a while and eventually, because it persisted, went to my ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist who told me that I had rhinitis, an allergy or something, and needed tests.

I had the allergy tests but there was nothing there. Still my sore throat persisted so I resorted to self-medication and I started sucking dissolvable Disprin tablets – which taste wonderfully lemony and pleasant, by the way. Relief, at last, and naturally, I went on sucking them and enjoying the symptomatic relief for a month or two. Then, I felt this little growth in my mouth, disc-shaped and in the same place I held the tablets when I sucked them.

Instead of going to the doc, I resolved not to suck any more Disprin but that didn’t help. The little ring-worm shaped node was there, rough, irritating and annoying. Get rid of it, I thought.

There’s the trick: get it out because if you leave a growth of any kind it may become the subversives’ headquarters, where new recruits hang out.

The tiny growth was biopsied and confirmed: a squamous cell carcinoma of the soft palate. Simply put: skin-cancer at the back of my mouth, on a piece of tissue that allows you to talk with your mouth full and swallow as you do.

Doctors, investigations, advice and bundles of cancer horror stories later, my mates were convinced I was dying. I didn’t think so.

I investigated my cancer – after all it was mine – gave up smoking and, with the help of a marvellous head and neck cancer surgeon, Chris Joseph, booked into Medi-Clinic to change my life. It took just three hours to remove my soft palate – even though I’d kept it safe for 40 years – so thanks, subversives.

Palate removed

The nub of the matter was I had cancer, had been operated on and, while speaking was to be a trial for me (and still is), I was alive and well in hospital. Round one to the good guys – down with subversives.

For my hospital stay, my ever-thoughtful colleagues from Crown Publications made me a stack of printed cards to help me get along.

They had printed messages on them so my non-speaking life would be made a little easier. Messages – not of hope, inspiration or the promise of ever-lasting life – but practical messages.

"Sister, you’re looking gorgeous today. . . wanna fool around. . .?" or "Give me more drugs. . . I need more drugs" or ". . .this chicken soup’s fishy. . .where was the chef last night. . .?" ". . .Bring me a double scotch and soda. . . it’s a desert in here." "Anyone want to help me change my pyjamas. . .?"  Messages with meaning – all written by women who have a practical approach to life.

I was only in hospital for a couple of days – and while there, discovered the true cause of my agonisingly sore throat: Both my tonsils were so infected, inflamed and diseased that Dr Joseph whipped them out too (and biopsied them just in case). No palate, no tonsils – sorted.  

Out of hospital, I discovered the real annoyance of not having a palate or trying to talk without one. You talk in code – and it’s a code that takes months to learn or understand.

Speech problems

One Sunday soon after I’d been released I was sitting on my patio with a dear friend Kim, trying to explain that the loss of my palate was "debilitating". Now, trying saying that word with half-a-baby-potato in your mouth and you’ll know what I mean. It comes out something like "bebidibading" ‘cause the d’s, b’s and t’s don’t fit. It’s a code that’s completely unintelligible.

For some reason, which I simply can’t account for, I squeezed my nostrils and pronounced that word perfectly. Fingers, clamping the airway shut, gave me a perfect "debilitating". My elocution teacher would have been proud.

In due course, Kim left, but by then I’d managed to have a reasonable conversation with him, blocking my nose as I needed to. Now I was determined to find a way to block my nose discreetly.

I also discovered, with great joy let me add, that I could rinse my mouth after cleaning my teeth. If I blocked my nose, I created pressure so I could squirt water in a stream right over the neighbour’s wall. I tried it just for fun, much to the annoyance of the neighbour’s cat. I’m surprised it didn’t punch my lights out.

Anyway, the next day I was planning lunch with another good friend of mine, Jan at a restaurant in Halfway House and before heading off, popped into a nearby chemist to look around. I needed a nose-blocker.

"What a win," I thought spotting a set of earplugs used by swimmers. "Perfect. If I just stick these up my nose, nobody’ll know a thing. " I bought them.

I met Jan and lunch seemed to be going quite well. "Wow," he said, "Pad, you’re speaking beautifully. Is the palate growing back?"

"It is ab imbrovement bisn’t it," I answered taking a sip of beer. "I bust bell you how I biscovered bhis," I said sounding horrifically blocked as though I had earplugs stuffed up my nose. I did.

Maybe this isn’t going so well, I thought.

Speaking in code

Speaking got more and more tricky but, worse, the heat inside my nose was melting the wax, making it dribble. At least it felt like it was dribbling. I could feel the earplugs starting to move and any minute now, they’d either glide right out or make me sneeze, blasting them into the middle of Jan’s duck.

I ran for the toilet where, with a lot of pushing and snuffling I set the melting, earplugs free.

"Not your best idea, Pad," I said to myself blowing my face.

"I’m back to speaking in code," I said to Jan at the table and told him of the failed nose-plugs.

The more I spoke, the more he laughed. And the more he laughed the more I thought I was just stupid.

"There must be a better way," I thought, driving back and I found one a day or two later with equally hilarious consequences.

Read Paddy Hartdegen's blog "Anecdotes from a Cancer Survivor"

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