‘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
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.