The word cancer instills fear into most people. They just do not want to hear about it. It is a bad word in the English language. And at the same time, we are told that one in three of us are likely to get cancer. So why the awful fear? I suppose it has something to do with death and dying. And this is not surprising. As a comedian once said, “I don’t mind dying, 1 just don’t want to be there when it happens”. We have grown up with the idea that we must not think of death and while this is a useful defence mechanism, it can also breed excessive avoidance behaviour.
In August, I came home to Ireland from Zambia on a short holiday. I have been working in Africa since 1987 and for the last two years I have been living on my own. In the year 2000 1 was diagnosed as having type two diabetes. This as most people know, is a common medical condition for those in their fifties. It is treated in the early stages with tablets. It is only when the tablets no longer work that one has to resort to insulin injections. Well, over the past year, I began getting hoarseness on a regular basis. I put its cause down to the diabetic tablets I was taking. So in August I went immediately to the diabetic clinic requesting that they change my tablets. The diabetic nurse thought that, yes, the tablets may be giving the hoarseness. But which tablet? I was taking four different tablets. The nurse strongly suggested that I visit my GP to have my throat checked out.
On my way from the diabetic clinic, I visited my GP. He looked at my throat and without much comment referred me to a specialist. The appointment was made for 15th August in the University Teaching Hospital in Galway. At this stage, I had been persuaded by the GP that the diabetic tablets were not the cause of the hoarseness. He did mention in a matter of fact way that I might have cancer. But it was stated so casually, that I took no notice of it. It was a bit like stating that there is a possibility of an earthquake along the west coast of Ireland.
So it was with an air of anxiety that I arrived at the hospital for my appointment. I was accompanied by my wife Kay, who happens to work in the same hospital. She left me at reception and went to her job in the department of Cytology. I enquired the whereabouts of the ENT department. A rather tired looking receptionist pointed me down the corridor to another reception area. After being asked my details, the most important being whether I had Voluntary Health Insurance, I was directed to a waiting room. After some time I was directed to a smaller waiting room. Soon, the doctor appeared. He was a small man with dark hair who I estimated to be about 35 years of age. He was pleasant and rather reserved. He took me into his clinic and examined my throat. This involved putting an instrument up my nose and down into my throat. It was most disagreeable and at one stage I thought I was going to be sick. When he had finished his examination he told me that my throat was “very angry”. I asked him what this meant. He said that it was likely I had cancer. What a shock! At this stage the effect of the examination was beginning to be felt. I felt myself getting weak. I managed to ask a question. What is the bottom line? He said that the record of cures for this type of cancer was very good. My knees are now getting weak, and I have a bussing in my ears. I know I am going to faint any minute. So I tell the doctor, I need to lie down. Luckily there is a bed nearby and I lie on this. A nurse rushes in with a glass of water. I am sweating profusely at this stage. The doctor is thinking that maybe my blood sugar level is too low. He orders some tests to be done. The doctor is getting very anxious. He calls his colleague who declares that it is only the fright I have got which has done this to me. In the meantime a wheelchair has been ordered and a battery of tests are being prepared for me. After about twenty minutes I begin to revive. But I wish Kay were with me now. Being alone at that stage made me very frightened. When I was able to stand again, I told the doctor that I had enough suffering for one day and that I was going to see Kay in the hospital. I was not going to have any further tests done that day and I told the orderly that he could take the wheelchair away. I could see the nurse looking at me with amazement. It appeared as if she was having difficulty coping with a patient who was making his own decisions. I suppose 16 years in Africa has made me more independent than the average Irish patient.
I walked out of the :ENT department and over to Cytology. I went to reception and asked for Kay. I must have appeared very upset to the receptionist as she stared at me and then she tried to contact Kay. She was eventually located and appeared at the reception. I must have appeared very dejected as I could see the fear in her eyes. “He said I probably have cancer,” I blurted out. Really, Kay replied. Would you like me to take some time off to be with you? Yes, I said that would be great. Kay went to her boss and requested to go home early which was granted.
We went to the promenade in Salthill and sat down. I stared out at Galway Bay. It was one of those nice fine sunny days There was not a puff of wind. There were a few yachts in the bay. The beach was full of families enjoying picnics with children playing football and tennis. I began to watch those walking on the prom. I was saying to myself “I wonder if any of them have cancer”.
Thoughts turned to the plans I had yet to achieve. I was in the middle of reading for a master’s degree in law. Would I live long enough to see it completed? And what about my job as an educator. I knew that at least for the next year I would be unable to lecture. I had been told that I would lose my voice completely for some time. I saw a young man with a cigarette in his mouth. I said to myself, “What kind of an eejit is he”? Does he not know that cigarettes can give you cancer? 0, did I say that the doctor said that it Was probably my early years of smoking that caused the cancer. I was sitting watching in silence for about fifteen minutes with all these thoughts swimming through my brain. Suddenly, I broke the silence. Kay, I said, would you be able to manage without me? I was now being at my melodramatic best. I had raced away to the conclusion that my death was imminent. Kay, being of a more rational mind told me not to be so silly. Of course, I was in no imminent danger of dying, she reassured me. She added for good measure that I might even outlive her. This cheered me up a bit but I couldn’t get it out of my mind that my life was ruined. We decided that we would go for lunch to the Galleon, a nice little restaurant closely. We selected a table near the window where we could. eat our lunch while watching the passersby. We both had the beef and we skipped both the starter and the desert. Not surprising, the beef did not taste its usual self. It must be the medical news.
I spent most of the lunchtime looking at the people out in the street. I was now acquiring a second life threatening disease. I was beginning to wallow in self¬pity. Looking at all these people walking in the street, I kept asking, why me, why me. Why was it that I got diabetes and now cancer? Life is not fair. It was only a matter of time before I asked the ultimate question. Why did God do this to me? Especially seeing that I have been most attentive to my religious duties. Perhaps God does not really exist after all. It is only a fictional character like Santa Claus and’the Abominable Snowman.