I’ll be heading off to the Island later today for Easter. It’s become my second home now that we’ve got our holiday home just as we like it (the featured photo shows our holiday home as it was at Christmas). My husband has managed to load a washing machine into the back of the car, and will be spending a day or so installing it in one of the outside storage boxes.
If you’ve got time over Easter, I’d like to hear your cancer stories (2000 words or less) and how you’ve managed to overcome adversity. If you’ve published them on your blog or website, do leave a link in the comments section below. In this way everybody who visits my site will be able to read your story too. I’ll pick out the most inspiring one and share it on my website and social media.
Here’s my story:
A BATTLE NECKLACE
The surgeon greeted me with a smile as I walked into the consultation room on 10th November 2014. I had not seen him since my left neck dissection in 2007 to treat a resurgence of papillary thyroid cancer, but he still remembered me.
He felt around my neck and was convinced he could feel the two lymph nodes in question on the right side of my neck that the ultrasound scan had shown up, although they were very small. He assured me that the cancer was slow-growing and there was no real urgency for the operation, but said that if I did not have the surgery then the nodes would grow bigger. I agreed to him performing the operation on 4th December, and was secretly relieved that I could escape having to go to work over the Christmas period. He inserted the hated camera up my nose to ensure my right vocal cord was still working – it was.
The surgeon thought that the operation this time would not take as long as when he did the left side, as there was less work for him to do. He mentioned there was a ‘big lump’ previously that he had had to take out of the thyroid bed on the left side, and that had apparently taken quite a few of the 6 hours that I was under the anaesthetic. He did say there was still a ‘small area’ in the thyroid bed that he would need to remove, but that it was a much smaller area than last time and he wasn’t even sure it was cancerous tissue. It could be just scar tissue, but he would not be sure until after it was removed and biopsied.
This was the first time I had heard about any previous recurrence in the thyroid bed. I realised then that information is kept back by doctors, and patients only hear what doctors want them to hear.
I asked about the altered sensation and slight pain I had been experiencing on the left side of my neck over the previous fortnight or so. Like the oncologist, the surgeon had no idea what was causing it. I put it down to ageing or maybe adhesions from the effects of the previous surgery.
The time dragged slowly towards Thursday December 4th. On the Tuesday before I attended the pre-assessment clinic at the Cambridge Nuffield hospital, about 50 miles away, where my blood pressure, height, weight and urine were checked, along with swabs for MRSA. I was pleased to incidentally find out that my BMI was normal at 24.
Apparently the anaesthetist had already checked in earlier that day, eager to find out about his nightmare job….me (the patient with the reduced airway and increased lung secretions after each operation). The day before I filled up the fridge with food, wrote a bit more of my latest novel, packed my bag ready for the journey, and received messages from well-wishers.
I was due in Theatre at 1.30pm. At eleven o’clock on that fateful day we left home to return to the Cambridge Nuffield. I had packed various things to keep me occupied, and when I was shown to room number 225, I tried to concentrate on my Kindle book whilst various nurses bustled about filling out admission forms and handing me the mandatory backside-showing hospital gown and anti-DVT stockings. My blood pressure was through the roof with nerves, and I was thirsty, shaky and cold through lack of food.
Then came more visitors; the surgeon came in to take my consent and explain about all the things that could go wrong. I shut my mind to it all. The anaesthetist popped his head around the door and I took the chance to explain my reduced airway through having only one working vocal cord, also the increased secretions after a general anaesthetic, and of sleep apnoea if I am asleep/unconscious and am lying flat on my back. The anaesthetist did not seem bothered by all this, and said he would use a special tube to intubate me that went down my windpipe. He had been present at the previous operation 7 years before when the left side of my neck was dissected, and still had all my notes. I reminded him that when I had woken up after the previous operation I had never felt so hot in my life. He reassured me he would keep an eye on my body temperature.
As I donned my unflattering gown I sighed with the knowledge I had gained through undergoing the first neck dissection and thyroidectomy. I knew I would be awake for the next 3 days and nights, and would also need nebulisers for three days after the operation to try and shift the increased phlegm, and I remembered that it always took me at least 7 days to recover from a general anaesthetic (or liquid cosh as it can sometimes be known). I was not looking forward to the procedure at all, and could still hardly believe that I was having to go through it all again; this time would be the third major operation on my neck.
An emergency child’s operation had been slotted in before mine, so it was not until 3pm that I was able to put on the dressing gown provided and walk to Theatre. My husband Phil took my slippers and glasses at the door to the anaesthetic room and gave me a kiss, and by then my adrenaline was running so high that my fingertips were tingling. I lay down on the narrow trolley while a cannula was put in my hand by the anaesthetist who had visited my room earlier. As the cosh started flowing through my veins I felt something shut down in my brain, and for just a few seconds before lights out I knew why drug addicts were so keen to get their hands on such powerful narcotics (you just don’t care about anything anymore!).
It seemed as though no sooner had I gone to sleep than I was waking up in Recovery. However, six hours had passed, and the waking up process was to take several hours instead of a few moments. I realised I did not feel as hot as the previous time though, and silently thanked the anaesthetist for his diligence.
My brain was firing but I could not articulate, and a combination of all the drugs I had been given had caused a migraine on top of everything else. I reached up with my right hand to feel the wound, but somebody gently moved it down again. Then I was somehow back in my room, but I do not remember arriving. The clock showed ten minutes past nine in the evening. Phil held my hand and gave me a sip of water.
A blood pressure cuff was attached to my arm, which inflated and deflated at regular intervals. There was one chest drain in place. Nurses hurried in and out taking observations every 15 minutes, and I suddenly became aware that my bladder was feeling very full. I was still hooked up to a drip for hydration, and I most definitely needed a wee. As Phil did that terribly unromantic thing again and lifted me onto a bedpan, my head swum around and I wondered if I was going to be sick. I managed to blurt out that I was nauseous, and an anti-emetic was given through the cannula. Thankfully the nausea then began to reduce.
I vaguely remember seeing the anaesthetist come in to check how I was getting on, but the surgeon did not reappear. The anaesthetist informed me the operation had gone well, and that several nodes had been taken out and had been sent away for analysis. I thanked him for his work and felt somewhat guilty for keeping him at the hospital so late into the evening.
I continued sipping water and waking up. My neck felt stiff and sore, and I was weak and shaky. On the second day (Friday 5th December) the hydration drip was taken away, and I was grateful to be able to nibble on a piece of toast. I managed to hobble to the toilet, and had a little wash at the sink. When I looked at myself in the mirror I resembled death on legs, but marvelled at the neat job the surgeon had done with the multitude of metal clips keeping the wound together. My voice was worryingly weak, but when the surgeon visited he said it would settle down in time, and the weakness was probably either due to bruising and swelling, or having the endotracheal tube inserted during intubation.
I started on the prescribed nebulisers to counteract the build-up of extra secretions caused by the anaesthetic gases. By Saturday I could walk around in the corridor outside, and eagerly awaited the surgeon’s verdict as to when I could return home. Unfortunately the drainage tube in the side of my neck was still producing too much liquid, and I had to wait until the Sunday evening before it was finally taken out and I was able to leave.
Back at home it took a good week for the mucus to clear and for me to feel at least partly normal. At last I could sleep for short periods though, which is impossible in a hospital environment due to nurses, cleaners, doctors and the rest of the world waltzing in and out of my room every five minutes. I was forgetful, and at one point wondered if I had early Alzheimer’s. I was also weak, tired, and in quite a bit of pain, and so kept up with the Ibuprofen and Paracetamol that had been started after the operation. Phil took a couple of days off work and was there to help me rehabilitate and mobilise again. By the sixth day I had started to walk outside around our village. It was wonderful to feel the sun on my face again.
However, it would be 3 years until I could return to my post as a medical secretary, which I had enjoyed for 11 years (this time as a ‘bank’ secretary to cover staff shortages). My voice remained too weak to constantly answer the phone, and in 2015 I took early retirement. Every cloud has a silver lining though, and I began to write in earnest, using a pseudonym and to date completing 8 novels, 4 novellas, one memoir, and 18 short stories. I have won a couple of awards for one of my novels, which has given me further encouragement.
A new career as a self-published author opened up for me, and it is still my main occupation today (I also work two days per week as a medical secretary). I am learning the art of marketing books, and I have made countless friends online. As of March 2018 I am in remission once again, after undergoing 30 radiotherapy sessions in 2017. I remain very well, although my voice is now permanently damaged. I have become interested in Buddhist teachings, and look on the bright side; as one door closes, another one opens. Although I have neck lymphoedema and a scar going down from one ear, across the front of my neck and up to the other ear, I consider it my battle necklace, and I’m proud of it. Life is good!
P.S We have no Internet at our holiday home, and so I’ll answer any comments next week.