By Ananth Shenoy
A cancer survivor’s account of living with his disease, and how it eventually turned out to be a boon for him
On April 20, 2000, I was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx. I was 42, married, with two children. Cancer was bad enough but for it to have been diagnosed in the fourth stage was the ultimate nightmare.
My name ‘Ananth’ means ‘immortal’. Yet I became very mortal in a matter of a few hours on the biopsy table. At that point, I didn’t worry too much. It was an illness like any other and would go away with medication, I thought. Oncologists gave me only one option—removal of vocal chords. After some internet research, I decided to opt for radiation and resort to removal of the voice box only if that failed. I was not about to lose my voice without a fight. It was a voice that was my life, that I had courted my wife Sonya with, and which was the core of my profession as a marketing man.
A treatment of radiation therapy six days a week and chemotherapy on the seventh got over on July 4, 2000 (strange how one remembers all the dates when all’s not well). My voice had become so hoarse that one could hardly understand what I was saying, and I could eat only semi-solid foods with generous amounts of water.
Some months passed and my business was doing reasonably well. I still smoked and travelled on business. Since my immunity levels had dropped, all it required was for someone to sneeze for me to wind up with a bad cold or something else. I began popping painkillers as though they were going out of fashion. Depression ensured I spent as much time possible sleeping, so that I would not keep thinking, ‘why me’?
One November 2000 morning, to my horror I found that nothing would go down my gullet. I was immediately admitted in hospital. As my mother, Lily Shenoy, stayed with me, Sonya explained the events to our sons. Over the next few days, she would take care of them, run the business, and see to my needs at the hospital. The task was of titanic proportions, yet she did it. The toughest part for her was the transformation into a businessperson, and I am proud to say she kept the business afloat amidst all the problems.
A fistula had developed between the food and windpipes. It was an indication of a long battle ahead. A ‘Ryles tube’ was inserted through my nose into my stomach and that was the only way I could ‘eat’. I was weak and breathing was difficult. Admitted to AIIMS, an emergency tracheostomy had to be done. A hole was punctured in my throat to make breathing easier and a peg tube inserted for feeding. Too many infections had set in and a lot of fluid had collected in my lungs.
Insertion of the peg tube by a method called ‘endoscopy’ was so painful that if there was anything comparable to death, this was it. The pain was unbearable and I could not even scream out, as I had no voice till my trachea healed. I was crying unashamedly. Death suddenly seemed very attractive.
Slowly I began to get used to the idea that life would never be the same again, but was determined to claw back to being as ‘normal’ as I could be. As the pain decreased, I began working out at the gym, with a hole in my throat and a peg tube and all! My mother and wife would innovate and try various kinds of feeds through the tube—I would even have cheese sandwiches in milk blended in the mixer.
The most difficult battle began in April 2001 and this time round, the doctors actually gave up all hope of pulling me through. It was ironical that we had just concluded my tests at the Rajiv Gandhi Hospital on a Friday afternoon and were on our way back home with the good news that no traces of cancer had been found. While in the car, I developed stomach cramps that got progressively worse.
I was rushed to hospital where I was diagnosed with peritonitis—an ulcer burst that occurs ‘once in a million’ (and I had to be the millionth!). I remained in agony for almost a week until the doctors decided to operate and seal the ulcer. That day, I actually died on the operation table and experienced what is called an ‘out-of-body experience’. Although I did not see the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, I felt a great sense of peace descend over me. It was such a wonderful feeling that I did not want to return, but I guess God and life had other plans for me and I slipped back into my frail body.
As I was finally discharged after a month-long stay, my younger son, Arjun, took on the responsibility of giving me my medicines, and ensured they were always well stocked. He would help me go to the bathroom, give me a bath and change my dressings everyday, and he was just 10 years old. My older son, Varun, helped around the home and remained rock solid in the toughest times. I had to get better and fast, and once the stitches were removed, I restarted my workouts in a small way. With it my appetite slowly returned and the doctors were startled at the way I bounced back to as normal as I could be at that point. It was just a matter of time before I was back on my feet and doing everything on my own.
Having survived these ordeals, I found a new faith in God and took to praying and meditating in the morning and evening. The depression slowly wore off. I began writing too, and started work on a book and also articles on various issues I felt strongly about.
Come January 2002 and it was time for another operation, this time to remove the tubes and repair the fistula. Post-surgery, I got bad news—I had two fistulas (the second was hidden under the food pipe) and that my food pipe had turned into solid tissue. The doctors were forced to create a new passage and insert the tube.
Coming back home, I decided to find innovative solutions to my problem. I began with my throat tube—I cut each one to throat level so that they would not stick out. I created a method by which the tube could be held in place with hooks and finally I cut the length of the nose tube and put a bit of plaster on it so that it would seem as though I had nicked myself while shaving. However, the doctor decided to do away with the conventional tracheostomy tube and replaced it with a silicon stoma button, which made the hole in my throat hardly visible. I even created an orator with the aid of a baby’s bottle nipple and I no longer had to block my throat with my finger to talk. Due to a fungal infection, the Ryles tube was eventually taken out.
Hopefully things will be better now in this next round of my war on cancer. Cancer has to a large extent been a boon for me—I have discovered so many new things about myself and do imagine I have changed for the better and become more humane. As I am no longer part of the rat race, I am able to connect with people and accept them as they are. I am able to feel their pain and talk to them. I have become much closer to my family.
In my experience with disease, each time things looked better, there would be some setback or another. Whenever this would happen, I would think of a quote my wife forwarded to me that has become my mantra: “When the odds are against me I prove them wrong, when all else fails, I succeed. When all else ceases to exist, I continue to breathe. When all else turns to ashes, from it I rise. So it does not matter what you throw at me or what you do… I am, I do and that’s all that matters.”
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