‘So, any­one here got Can­cer?’

What hap­pens when a co­me­dian has the one thing you’re not sup­posed to joke about? David Smiedt re­counts his ex­pe­ri­ence

Reader's Digest Asia Pacific - - Bonus Read - FROM GQ PHO­TOGRAPHED BY GUISEPPE SANTAMIA

In­ever thought can­cer would hurt. I was more of the mind it’d merely eat away from the in­side – like the end­ing of In­cep­tion. But it stung and throbbed like a first heart­break. I’d had an in­ter­mit­tent pain be­hind my right ear for 18 months – it was worse when I flew and flared up now and again for no ap­par­ent rea­son.

Both GP and den­tist were stumped. Var­i­ous cour­ses of an­tibi­otics proved im­po­tent and, even­tu­ally, I was despatched to the Chris O’Brien Life­house at Syd­ney’s RPA Hospi­tal for a jaunt through the al­pha­bet of med­i­cal im­agery. A CAT was fol­lowed by an MRI, which then gave way to a PET. In short, I was scanned more of­ten than an Aldi bar­gain – and each time by a more som­bre tech­ni­cian.

The word ‘ir­reg­u­lar­ity’ came to be used with in­creas­ing fre­quency and grav­ity. And then it wasn’t. The ra­dioac­tive dye that clings to high con­cen­tra­tions of glu­cose blos­somed into a sin­gle bright red cherry – and the C-bomb was dropped for the first time.

I was 48, had never had a se­ri­ous ill­ness and was un­equiv­o­cally can­cer­ous. To be spe­cific, T2 (which ­in­di­cates the size of the tu­mour) and ton­sil­lar (the lo­ca­tion), which sounds like the part of the air­port re­served for low-bud­get car­ri­ers.

As you’ll no doubt come to un­der­stand over the course of this ar­ti­cle, I re­spond to se­ri­ous sit­u­a­tions with ram­pant glib­ness. It’s not a cop­ing mech­a­nism. It’s my per­son­al­ity.

As a fam­ily, we’re on more than nod­ding terms with can­cer – it claimed my fa­ther at 54, my step­fa­ther soon af­ter­wards and I fig­ured it was, well, just my turn.

I could af­ford to be such a fa­tal­ist as the tu­mour was slow-grow­ing, dis­cov­ered fairly early and in a zone that was highly op­er­a­ble. Bet­ter still, a pre­lim­i­nary re­moval of lymph glands sug­gested it hadn’t spread be­yond the ton­sil – and so it was most likely a mat­ter of go­ing in, cut­ting the ­bas­tard out and get­ting on with life af­ter a month or so of re­cov­ery.

This brings me to the per­fect op­por­tu­nity to check my priv­i­lege. For all the sta­tis­ti­cal bad luck and ge­netic lot­tery that saw me wheeled into surgery on May 1, 2017, I was in fact be­yond for­tu­nate on nu­mer­ous fronts:

1)Ge­o­graph­i­cally I could walk to the hospi­tal, un­like many ­ru­ral pa­tients I would meet over the

com­ing months, whose fam­i­lies had to travel thou­sands of kilo­me­tres and live in mo­tels just to watch a loved one maybe sur­vive.

2)Fi­nan­cially I had the health in­sur­ance to cover costs plus a bank ac­count healthy enough to just stretch a few months where re­cov­ery could be my only job.

3)Emo­tion­ally My sup­port net­work was both im­me­di­ately ­ac­ces­si­ble and nu­mer­ous.

4)Sci­en­tif­i­cally I was op­er­ated on by a ro­bot. Short story? I was al­ways go­ing to sur­vive this.

It was per­haps a com­bi­na­tion of these el­e­ments which led me to rad­i­cally un­der­es­ti­mate what lay ahead – and just what a beast can­cer is when it’s in your own body.

Surgery took five hours and I awoke in in­ten­sive care with a na­so­gas­tric feed­ing tube in one nos­tril, the other sewn shut, numb­ness down the left side of the face, myr­iad drips and a bar­rage of beep­ing, whirring sleep-pre­vent­ing mon­i­tors.

I also had a ready sup­ply of fen­tanyl, which I could ad­min­is­ter when­ever the need struck. It was like be­ing in­side an opi­oid-fu­elled Trans­former and if this was the worst of it, things were tick­ety-boo. But one thing you learn about can­cer is that it al­ways has more in store.

On the wall of the hospi­tal room was a me­tre-wide, red dig­i­tal clock – one I watched spool through 36 hours with min­i­mal slum­ber. At which point, the com­bi­na­tion of pain-killers, anaes­the­sia and lack of sleep mor­phed into what doc­tors la­belled psy­chosis – some­thing I called a full- on break­down. None of this was helped by a sleep­ing pill de­pen­dency I may, or may not, have been en­tirely hon­est about.

Dig­nit y lef t the bui ld­ing as I writhed be­tween teary hys­te­ria, mor­dant de­pres­sion and the mount­ing be­lief I couldn’t breathe (when in re­al­ity my oxy­gen in­take was at 98 per cent). If I wasn’t be­rat­ing the staff about this ap­par­ent ‘fact’, I was ask­ing nurses to hold my hand un­til the wave of rack­ing sobs passed.

Ev­ery re­source I thought I had – courage, strength, ob­jec­tiv­ity – evap­o­rated in the face of the very first chal­lenge faced. I ex­pressed thoughts of self- harm in or­der to be taken ­se­ri­ously and roused my poor wife at 4am with the words, “I just can’t do this”. Only to col­lapse into her arms, a wheez­ing, blub­ber­ing, catas­tro­phe of a hu­man.

Some psy­cho­log­i­cal in­ter­ven­tion and 24 hours later, and I was trans­ferred to a ward. Un­like oth­ers, it had no bal­cony, as I was deemed a sui­cide risk. It was strongly sug­gested my wife sleep be­side me on the pull-out sofa in case things got real.

As the tsunami of emo­tions set­tled

into mere danger­ous rips, I came to know the most un­wel­come of com­pan­ions: can­cer guilt.

Here I was with a non-ter­mi­nal va­ri­ety, in a lo­ca­tion that could be op­er­ated on, with ac­cess to su­perla­tive care and still I couldn’t keep it to­gether. What a pa­thetic ex­cuse for a man to put my wife, mum and sis­ter through this spec­ta­cle. Faced with the first real test of my met­tle in al­most 50 years, I’d come up short.

Still, the worst was over. They’d ­re­moved the can­cer. Or so I’d thought. Like I said, the Big C keeps on giv­ing. Of the 53 lymph nodes re­moved, a trio had come back pos­i­tive, with one pre­par­ing to make its way into the rest of the body

This was no amuse-bouche va­ri­ety as first thought – I was go­ing to get the full de­gus­ta­tion of chemo and ra­dio­ther­apy. But not be­fore all the teeth on the right side of my jaw had to be re­moved as they ap­par­ently crum­ble dur­ing the on­slaught of treat­ment. Wel­come to the never-end­ing cav­al­cade of dis­fig­ure­ment that is the Big C. You learn to ex­pect the worst and, de­spite all the love of friends and fam­ily, you’ll never feel more iso­lated or alone. No one but you can find a way to nav­i­gate and sur­vive treat­ment.

For me, part of the an­swer lay in hu­mour. It was at once my re­lease valve, es­cape pod and ar­moury – a sign I was still me. This pre­sented those tak­ing care of me with a prob­lem. Ap­par­ently, the sit­u­a­tion was no laugh­ing mat­ter and the sub­ject hardly one for lev­ity. To which I said a mas­sive stuff that, ­at­tempted to lighten the mood and bombed like an open-mic comic ­do­ing mother-in­law ma­te­rial.

As an ex­am­ple, dur­ing the first biopsy where more than a dozen sam­ples were taken from my neck nodes, I sug­gested the doc­tor set­tle down or peo­ple would think he was a ‘lym­pho­ma­niac’. Granted it’s a pun and not my best, but surely not a bad ice­breaker un­der the cir­cum­stance.

His re­sponse: “No, David, I’m a pathol­o­gist.”

An­other ex­am­ple – when my spe­cial­ist broke the ini­tial di­ag­no­sis to me, she did so with the words, “it’s small but I know ex­actly what to do with it”. To which, I couldn’t help but

“Of the 53 lymph nodes re­moved, a trio had come back pos­i­tive, with one pre­par­ing to make its way into the rest of my body”

re­spond, “If I had a dol­lar for ev­ery woman who’d said that to me.”

As if this wasn’t the time for school boy in­nu­endo.

Then came a more se­ri­ous spe­cial­ist: “Mr Smiedt, I highly rec­om­mend six weeks of ra­dio treat­ment.”

Ac­tual per­son with the ill­ness: “If that means lis­ten­ing to break­fast ­ra­dio, I’d rather take my chances with can­cer.”

Time for one more? OK, then: “As a re­sult of the surgery and ra­dio­ther­apy, your sense of taste will be sig­nif­i­cantly af­fected.”

“Tell me about it, I ac­tu­ally found my­self en­joy­ing an episode of The Big Bang The­ory.” Nada, noth­ing, zip.

By the time my health in­sur­ance bro­ker was re­fer­ring to a po­ten­tial pay out as a ‘lump sum’, I knew I was the only one in the room who’d find it funny.

There was a re­cov­ery month be­tween surgery dis­charge – don’t get me started – be­fore re­port­ing for ra­dio­ther­apy and chemo. Dur­ing which time my weight dropped and the re­cov­er­ing nerves in my neck com­bined with the miss­ing teeth for a look that said ‘hands up who likes meth?’

I Face­booked about this – that the sole up­side of my predica­ment was that lo­cal junkies were no longer has­sling me for change. And I had an ex-col­league re­buke me for my in­sen­si­tiv­ity to those who’d lost fam­ily mem­bers to can­cer. On the one hand, I un­der­stood the sit­u­a­tion

would in­evitably call to mind, for oth­ers, loved ones lost and sear­ing sepa­ra­tions.

But at the same time it was as if I had to jus­tify my at­ti­tude to my own ill­ness. How­ever, I learned some­thing which would grow in value in the weeks to come. There were no rules in deal­ing with this – it was my ex­pe­ri­ence to in­ter­act with which­ever way I saw fit, and stuff any­one who thought I should be do­ing, think­ing, say­ing or tweet­ing any­thing dif­fer­ently. It was an at­ti­tude that lost me friends, but I’m fine with it.

Of course, the over­whelm­ing re­sponse was pure, unadul­ter­ated love in which col­leagues be­came friends, friends be­came fam­ily and so­cial me­dia be­came medic­i­nal. At the same time, peo­ple also of­ten don’t know what to say to some­one with can­cer.

For many, it’s still a stran­gu­lated taboo that ranges from plat­i­tudes (“it’s amaz­ing what modern medicine can do these days”) and con­spir­acy the­o­ries (“it’s all that sugar in your diet”) to the down­right in­ap­pro­pri­ate (“my un­cle died of ton­sil­lar can­cer”) and, the bizarre (“a woman I used to work with cured her can­cer by bathing with olive oil”).

I was on the re­ceiv­ing end of more ‘ but how are you, re­ally?’ sym­pa­thetic head tilts than one man is due in a life­time – and a never-end­ing tor­rent of let­ter­press af­fir­ma­tions re­gard­ing my end­less spir­i­tual power. None res­onated. Ex­cept a say­ing from

Par­a­lympic cham­pion Kurt Fearn­ley: ‘strength is the abil­ity to ac­cess re­silience’.

I’d need ev­ery good in­ten­tion and kind wish in the months which lay ahead, for I un­der­es­ti­mated the hideous­ness of not sim­ply the ill­ness, but the cure. Make no mis­take, chemo­ther­apy is a poi­son – those ad­min­is­ter­ing go full haz­mat – with dosages de­signed to take you to the edge of your phys­i­cal ca­pac­ity. Ra­di­a­tion, mean­while, is the orig­i­nal sick burn. It leaves you scarred, scared and is ac­tu­ally at its most vi­cious in the two weeks af­ter com­plet­ing treat­ment. Yet they’re the best we have right now.

Six weeks of both re­duced me to an emo­tional, phys­i­cal and men­tal husk – the body re­treat­ing into the most tren­chant of sur­vival modes. What were once re­li­able sources of joy and sus­te­nance – a well-turned phrase in a much-loved book, food that was any­thing other than a hospi­tal-grade pro­tein sup­ple­ment, move­ment for its own sake – faded into a sta­sis of ad­mis­sion, dis­charge and read­mis­sion.

All the while, my weight plum­meted from the high 80 kilo­grams to the low 60 kilo­grams as the ghosts of Tre­blinka I’d been ex­posed to as a Jewish child looked back at me from ev­ery mir­ror. Blood counts plum­meted and my di­ges­tive sys­tem fluc­tu­ated be­tween be­ing able to open a green juice bar down there and hav­ing the world’s most re­dun­dant sphinc­ter. Aside from Si­mon Cow­ell, that is. I can joke, now, but I must have gone a good month with­out find­ing any­thing mildly amus­ing. I was my ill­ness and had be­come a man I could barely recog­nise.

I wasn’t a par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant one, either. To my eter­nal shame, I snapped at my part­ner for be­ing dis­con­nected; there were days I wanted to talk about my il lness, days I wanted to dis­cuss any­thing else, and God help those who couldn’t spot the dif­fer­ence. Self-pity was abun­dant, but the one thing I wasn’t, was coura­geous. Or in­spir­ing. It frus­trated and pained when well-mean­ing peo­ple lobbed such ac­co­lades in my di­rec­tion – I was any­thing but.

Be­ing on a can­cer ward gives you the op­por­tu­nity to see real brav­ery up close. It’s the guy two beds over rid­dled with stage three sign­ing up

“I must have gone a month with­out find­ing any­thing mildly amus­ing. I was my ill­ness. I had be­come a man I could barely recog­nise”

for the rav­ages of chemo when there’s a frac­tion of a per­cent­age chance it might help se­cure a few more painfilled months.

It’s the bald and with­er­ing mum next door who still man­ages to smile ev­ery time we pass in the cor­ri­dor.

It’s the kid in his soc­cer kit straight from Satur­day morn­ing sport who’s come to say a fi­nal good­bye.

For here’s the nub of it. What they don’t tell you is that along with a neat scar and al­most 50 sep­a­rate chemo and ra­dio treat­ments, you get a bulk take-home pack of per­spec­tive. Enough to last a life­time if you’re care­ful. Dur­ing the worst vomit-­flecked days when each hour was both tor­ment and achieve­ment, there was al­ways some­one worse off.

I write this a year af­ter what was hope­fully my fi­nal treat­ment. Only four more to go to be de­clared of­fi­cially can­cer free. Be­cause this is a dis­ease that likes a come­back tour.

I’m ap­proach­ing a sem­blance of my pre­vi­ous self and am glad to see him. Yet it’s im­pos­si­ble not to be changed by such an ex­pe­ri­ence. I’m cer­tainly no wiser, calmer or less prone to van­ity. What I have gained, though – aside from some wel­come ki­los – is an ap­pre­ci­a­tion of both the sim­ple and the pro­found. Sun­shine on the face, a steak with a crust, the tech­nol­ogy that al­lows me to Skype a nephew in Los An­ge­les, Ste­vie Won­der’s back cat­a­logue, the love of a part­ner who didn’t sign up for some­thing this hard this early.

There’s also a height­ened val­u­a­tion of time. At least that which re­mains. Be­cause I’m never go­ing to get back the two hours and 28 min­utes it took to make it to the end of In­cep­tion.

Look, I may not have ex­actly dodged a bul­let here, it’s a flesh wound at best. But I’ll out­live my can­cer. And not too many can say the same.

If you or some­one you care about is deal­ing with can­cer, the Can­cer Coun­cil can pro­vide in­for­ma­tion and re­sources as well as a con­fi­den­tial tele­phone coun­selling ser­vice. Visit can­cernz.org.nz.

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