The Story so far

My story begins with the first cancer in 1997 and the surgery in 1998. I have included them because that’s when my life began to change. It then moves on to the second cancer which developed in 2012 and the surgery that took place in 2013.

The First Cancer

I first got a sore throat in December 1997. I had a pain like a needle prick in the back of my mouth when I swallowed. I immediately thought "Jesus there is something wrong here" and then "Is it cancer or something worse?" (If there is anything worse.) I decided to ignore it. After a few weeks it became very difficult to eat and the weight was dropping off me like nobody's business. Then a tooth came out during my attempt to eat Boxing Day dinner. I saw a doctor who I don't usually see. It was Christmas after all, so I couldn't get an appointment to see my usual doctor. I went and he told me I had a sore throat, he prescribed penicillin and said if it hadn't cleared up in a week to come back and see him. After a week it was worse. I went back and was prescribed stronger penicillin. I was back again a week later and given even stronger penicillin. This went on for a couple of months. By this time it was becoming unbearable, I couldn’t eat properly and I was in pain all the time. Being a great believer in self-analyzing I knew this was no ordinary sore throat. I began to think I had something worse. My wife Hazel suggested I get a second opinion. This I duly did, by asking the doctor for one. Not easy if you are a milder person but I have no such qualms. I was rung at work the next day by the doctor and told to go to the medical centre to collect a letter to take to the hospital immediately. I complied and took it to the hospital. My appointment was for Clinic 10. There I saw the ENT consultant. He put his fingers down my throat and said I needed a biopsy on the ulcer on my tonsil. I was given an appointment two days later. This would take place under a general anaesthetic and would mean an overnight stay in hospital. This was done and I suffered no after-effects whatsoever and went home. A few days later a letter came. It gave me an appointment to see a consultant at the ENT clinic and come with my next of kin. This sounded bad. I was told I had cancer of the tonsil or to be more technical squamous cell carcinoma of the hypopharynx and it needed to be removed right away.

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The First Surgery

They moved fast. The cure began with the removal of my tonsil and the surrounding tissue. That required a general anaesthetic and a few nights’ stay in hospital. It all happened so fast I was in a daze. I was out within three days and back at work within a week. Radiotherapy was next on the agenda. I was going to have IMRT (intensity-modulated radiotherapy) which involved a few visits to have a mask  made.

A Mask

They moved fast. The cure began with the removal of my tonsil and the surrounding tissue. That required a general anaesthetic and a few nights’ stay in hospital. It happened so fast I was in a daze. I was out within days and back at work within a week. Radiotherapy was next on the agenda. I was going to have IMRT (intensity-modulated radiotherapy) which involved a few visits to have a mask  made. This was needed so they could bolt my head in one place for the treatment because I needed to lie I exactly the same position each time the treatment is given. Radiotherapy is used on its own if your cancer is in its early stages as mine was (I think it was stage 1).This was needed so they could bolt my head in one place for the treatment because I needed to lie I exactly the same position each time the treatment is given. Radiotherapy is used on its own if your cancer is in its early stages as mine was (I think it was stage 1).  My next place of call was the simulation room. Here I was bolted down while the system was set to the spec needed for me.


During one visit, while dressing to go I overheard one of the girls say: "He wouldn't need a mask with me,because I would sit on his face." She went red when she realised I was still there and had heard everything.



A Radiotherapy unit

I was very nervous on my first trip to the radiology department (there were 31 in all).  It was going to take six weeks and one day. The reason it was going to be so long was because there is no treatment on Fridays or Saturdays and none on bank holiday Mondays either. There is a lesson to be learnt here. Don't get ill and need the hospital on a weekend or a bank holiday. It took over seven weeks in the end. My head was duly bolted down with the aid of the mask. I was left alone and the only noise I heard was the radio. I assume this was to relax me. However they played ‘Another one bites the dust’ by Queen. I saw the funny side of this and was still laughing when the girls came to unbolt me. I told them. The radio was never played again. A few weeks in food started to taste horrible and then I couldn't eat at all. When I told the consultant he said that usually happened about now. I have not been able to eat properly since. They told me in the beginning that it was important to keep water off my face so I couldn’t wash it.More visits to radiology followed, generally around lunchtime. This meant a minimal amount of time was lost from work. As I was paid hourly then it was a great help. After a couple of weeks I became too ill to work and my beard stopped growing (some bits still don't grow) and my face was getting serious burns. Weight continued to fall off me at an alarming rate. My saliva disappeared as well. I told the consultant and a pattern was emerging: he said that usually happened about now. It was then I thought I was going to die and cried for the first and only time. James, my eldest son, had come home from Brighton University as he could not cope in Brighton and not know what was happening up here. Then I had a serious think.   It was soon after this that Hazel and I watched a play starring Martin Clunes. It was about a man's struggle with prostate cancer. In one scene, when he was crying, his son said: "Dad, you are not the only one in this family with cancer. We are all suffering with it." James came downstairs. He had been in his room watching it as well. He said: "Now you know what we are going through as well." I started to improve and my weight loss stopped after a visit to the nutritionist. After that I started to live again. I went to the pub more often and we started to go on holidays. The treatment was a success and after regular visits to the hospital for five years I was given the all clear. No more visits to the hospital. However, if I got a sore throat at any time I should go straight to my GP. I started to look for work again.

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The Second Cancer, the following Surgery and Recovery

I got a sore throat in 2012 similar to the one I had in 1997. I did not waste any time. I went to see a GP, who after looking down my throat sent me to hospital. I first saw someone in the mouth clinic. Next I went to ENT. The consultant gave me a nansendosopy – putting a thin tube fitted with a light to enable him to see down my throat - I was given an aesthetic spray first. This I turned down on subsequent visits. I was asked about my symptoms. He looked at my history and diagnosed throat cancer of the larynx. I was devastated. I had thought all that was behind me. I saw someone from Speech and Language Therapy, commonly known as SALT. They told me what was going to happen. I was not sure I wanted to go through with any treatment they could offer. It turned out they could offer me none except a total laryngectomy due to the radiotherapy I had already had. Initially, I was not going to have it done as it would mean my voice was gone. Like most people my voice was very important to me. Unlike the first cancer, this time I was told what was going to happen every step of the way and what to expect. As I'd been through it before I was able to take it all in. I had received the maximum amount of radiation for the first cancer and so was told I could not have any more. The only answer was the removal of the cancer and to get it all. In my case the cancer was on my larynx (voice box). This meant I would never be able to speak again (You can find out about my voice by clicking  communication)  As for the recovery (You can find out about the recovery by clicking recovery), it was fifty/fifty. A lot of questions were asked before I went ahead. How many of this type of operation had the team performed before? The answer was lots as Addenbrookes in Cambridge was one of the top hospitals in the country for this type of surgery and Mr Fish was one of the leading experts in the country.
One thing though was certain, life was going to be completly different. I went in for the surgery early in the morning. I was first in the theatre in fact. Just before the anesthetist put me to sleep, I said, "Goodbye, you are the last person I will speak to so I will say again goodbye." I never spoke properly again. I came round in the recovery room and was transferred to intensive care. Someone sat with me and monitored me 24/7. I spent two or thee days there. I am not too sure how many as the days drifted by. I know my wife and mother came to see me a couple of times. On the second or third day a doctor came to see me. He explained that he needed to take a blood sample because during surgery someone cut themselves and there was a cross-contamination risk. It turned out the test was for AIDS. Bloody typical, I went in with a sore throat and leave with aids. Luckily the test was negative and I was transferred to a general ward.
After the second week my recovery was good and a speech valve was fitted by a member of the SALT team. I was taught how to use it to ‘make speech’ and the hygiene regime I would need to follow. Christ, what a rigmarole I was going to have to go through everyday. Life was definitely not going to be the same. I now do the cleaning procedure routinely. I had to learn how to walk because a skin graft was taken from my leg and muscle was used to rebuild part of my gullet. At first I could only walk by holding on to a wall. Then I was paid a visit by a girl from the mobility depart. She measured me for a stick and when it was ready she taught me to walk using it.
Two and a half weeks later I was well enough to go home and begin my new life. The next day I was in the pub. Soon after that I thought: Here I am a man that never took any shit from anyone to a man that literally can't say Boo to a Goose. As with the first cancer, depression was setting in. I had to get a grip quickly. Luckily I was able to and got out of it quite quickly and got back on track.

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© William Pickup