My cancer story started in December 2013. I have worked as a welder all my working life but had started feeling really tired and was struggling with a sore throat and kept losing my voice. I had just had my 52nd birthday and got the news that shocked me and changed my life forever. After several visits to my GP over a couple of years and always being told what I wanted to hear that I had a chest infection. I was finally referred to the hospital to get it checked out.
I was diagnosed with stage four throat cancer and told that I needed a laryngectomy. I was stunned! The following day I was back at the hospital having my pre-op and two days later was admitted to North Manchester general hospital to have a total laryngectomy operation. Because of a couple of complications I was in hospital for around four weeks and not the usual 10 days and spent Christmas and the New Year in hospital but as I was unable to eat or drink or talk it didn’t matter.
I left hospital in January 2014 still unable to talk. I was supposed to have a speaking valve fitted at the time of the operation but due to complications it wasn’t possible and it would be two years before I would eventually be able to talk again.
I was given about 4 weeks to recover from the operation before I started my chemotherapy and radiotherapy course at the Christie hospital in Manchester. I had 2 sessions of chemotherapy and 30 sessions of radiotherapy. I wasn’t prepared for what to expect and found it a real low point.
Things didn’t go totally smoothly but I started on the long road to recovery. I was off work for 13 months recovering. I had a few problems along the way eating and drinking and lost over 6 stones in weight. (I was very overweight so this was a massive plus point although it cost me a fortune having to buy a new wardrobe!!!)I had a new speaking valve fitted but it didn’t work and I ended up with a bad infection and another feeding tube in for another 3 months until it cleared up. Obviously it was going to be difficult returning to welding but I was given enormous help and encouragement from my speech therapist Janice, who visited my workplace regularly and arranged a back to work government grant (access to work)to get equipment modified so that it would be safe for me to try and return to welding.
Eventually after 13 months I did return to work. Although we were trying to get a grant to get the equipment modified these things take time and nothing had yet been sorted out but my employers knowing that I felt well enough to try and return to work found me a part time job in the office so that I could return.
Even though I was only doing 4 hours a day and getting home absolutely shattered I still felt I was winning my battle. Eventually the grant for new equipment came through and the new equipment was purchased at work but I remained in the office. Again my recovery was having ups and downs and after eventually having a speaking valve fitted and having massive problems with it and still being unable to talk. It was decided to have it removed and let it heal up. So again I was unable to eat or drink for 3 months until the hole had healed up.
I was still working part time in the office but after all the weight I had lost I was feeling quite weak. So to try and build up some strength and stamina so that I could return to welding I was referred to the gym by the doctors on an exercise referral scheme to try and get stronger.
I had never done any exercise before or been in a gym but I thoroughly enjoyed it. I was just doing light exercise but it felt really good. I was going just a couple of times a week but felt so much better. The staff at the gym at Royton Leisure Centre that I go to were very helpful and supportive to me and nominated me for the changing lifestyle award at the Oldham sports awards. A big posh do at the Queen Elizabeth Hall in Oldham. I invited Janice and her assistant and my Macmillan nurse along to support me and unbelievably I won!! And because of winning I was then put forward to the Greater Manchester sports awards representing Oldham. A huge event at Old Trafford which I also won! I even managed a few words on stage in front of hundreds of people thanking everyone for my award. A massive step for me.
Its 4 years now since my laryngectomy. I can now talk, it took 2 years before I was able to. I had a second valve fitted but still I was finding it very hard to talk. Janice sent me down to London to see a specialist and they injected my throat with botox to try and relax the muscle in my throat. I have had 4 treatments up to now and it’s not perfect but it’s getting there. I am now back welding. I work 30 hours a week (6 hours a day). I am unable to lift heavy items so I’m doing the smaller jobs that will fit on a special bench that I have that sucks all the welding fumes away and I also wear a head shield that blows air in so that I breathe fresh air rather than any welding fumes. The reduced hours that I do now suit me fine. I don’t feel that I want to work full time anymore. A friend at work asked me the other day when I was going to go full time and I replied never and pointed to my neck. He turned round and said to me “you can’t play on that forever you know!” It made me smile because it shows that I’m back to normal in everyone’s eye
Janice my speech therapist has on occasions asked me to meet new patients with her so that she can show them that life can be good for everyone after a laryngectomy. It seems to help everyone and makes me feel really good about it too. I love going and it really does seem to make a difference. The feedback we have had has been fantastic. All the meetings are always with my speech therapist so no incorrect information can be passed onto the patients.
I’m also heavily involved in our local laryngectomy support group, the Oldham Quiet Ones. I go to all the meetings and have found it very supportive and helpful and I have now been asked to be the chairman of the group after our original chairman stood down due to other commitments. I help out with all the fundraising and the website and we’ve now started a Facebook page which I end up posting loads of info on.
I’ve had terrific help and support all through my journey from my speech therapist. She is still there whenever I need support and has been since the very first day I was diagnosed. And now added to this great support is the new head and neck specialist nurse Izzy that’s been provided by Countrywide supplies. Working together with our speech therapists, she knows our history so will know everything each patient requires. It’s a brilliant personal service that’s tailored to each individual patient that should take some of the workload off our speech therapist and is aimed at patients like me that no longer need hospital appointments but can be kept up to date with the latest and best products that are available and suitable for us.
So that’s my story, it’s been a very busy 4 years so far. I’ve had loads of setbacks and it has been far from straight forward or easy. But I feel that I have come through having cancer a stronger person and the positives outweigh the negatives and even though I’m not great at talking, and I’m not that great at breathing. I’m still here and I wouldn’t change a thing. Any advice for others would be, stay strong, stay positive and keep smiling. Having a laryngectomy is life changing, but it’s definitely NOT life ending.