Geoff’s Journey Through Head & Neck Cancer

In the beginning.

I was coming to the end of my 15-year engagement with British Aerospace in Saudi Arabia when I started getting a husky voice and I was also hospitalised for a few days due to flaking out a couple of times.

After returning to the UK, upon retirement, I became a little bored and decided to go Baghdad, Iraq for a year or so to help to set up a Private Security Company.  While there again, I suffered similar voice problems and it would come and go.  Again, I experienced flaking out a couple of times.  On my flight home to UK. I put all this down to the dusty conditions of the desert.

Once back in the UK I saw my local General Practitioner who immediately referred me to a consultant at my local hospital.

The Diagnosis

The Consultant took a telescopic look down my throat which was piped via my nose, and said “You know what this is don’t you?” I immediately knew and replied “Yes, I think so.” After various scans, x-rays and being prodded and poked, I was informed that the cancer on my larynx was T-4 which meant it was very aggressive, was already eating my larynx, and was now looking for somewhere else to go.

We then discussed the options.

The Operation

I was given a total laryngectomy in January 2009 and they also removed the lymph nodes in my neck and part of my thyroid. This all went well, and I healed surprisingly quickly.  Soon I was eating, drinking and talking again with confidence.

The Side-Effects

Some weeks after that operation I was to endure 37 consecutive days of radiotherapy and weekly sessions of chemotherapy.  This too went well although towards the end of the sessions I started to get nauseous and my neck was quite burned. I had to be re-admitted to hospital as I was dehydrating badly.  I overcame this hurdle and was soon was up and about and settling back into my normal daily routine.

After a few months I started to suffer frequent problems with the speech valve in my throat and had to have it changed frequently because it would leak, causing me to splutter and choke when eating or drinking.  Apparently, the effects of the radio-therapy had badly scarred the tissue inside my throat.

I was in and out of hospital over the next few years until 2014 when I was eventually unable to eat or drink by mouth or talk at all for eight months.  It’s now over eight years since my laryngectomy and the hair under my arms or my chest has still not grown back!  When the sun shines hot, my neck starts to cook again from the radiotherapy effects.

Prior to the radio-therapy sessions I was fitted with a PEG (tube) in my tummy to enable me to take food and liquid directly into my stomach.  I still have the same PEG fitted all these years later!

The Major Pectoral Muscle Flap

In 2014 my consultant referred me to a consultant surgeon in the Northeast of England where I underwent a Major Pectoral Muscle Flap.  This entailed taking muscle tissue from my left chest / breast and flapping it into my neck.  I no longer have a left man-boob and had eighty metal clips stapled in my chest during the operation, but since removed.  This all went remarkably well and I was up and running again reasonably quickly. I was again able to eat, drink and talk. I can eat and drink, albeit slowly, and the food must be soft and small.   But…

Then in 2016 I was once again unable to talk at all.

Speechless

Another operation was necessary to realign my speech valve as it had migrated and wasn’t sitting in my throat correctly.  This was preventing me from using what voice I have left.  My consultant seemed somewhat hesitant and said to me, “That sometimes when we try to put things right, we can make matters worse.”  That didn’t instil me with a great deal of confidence, but I was completely in their hands.

I was also given the choice between eating and drinking, or talking, for the rest of my life. There was a chance I might not be able to do both.

A brand-new speech valve

In March 2016 they removed my speech valve and then let the fissure close over completely.   In November 2016 they checked me over and said they would try to fix a new speech valve before Christmas. I was elated.  But Christmas came and not a word.  Easter of 2017 came and still no word.

Eventually I was admitted in May and they punctured a new hole inside my throat in readiness to receive a new speech valve.  Although performed under a general anaesthetic I as discharged that same day which was a Monday. On the Friday, the Speech & Language Therapist fitted me with a new speech valve and this allowed me to eat, drink and to utter a few words.

Thanks

Without a doubt, I owe my life to the GP who first saw a problem and immediately referred me to a consultant.  That saved my life.  Of course, I will be eternally grateful to all the surgeons, clinicians, therapists, and hospital workers who have been there for me for these past few years.

Special thanks to the nurses and other hospital staff of Lynher Ward at Derriford Hospital, Plymouth.

Geoffrey N. Read

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