What had been reassuring was that Peter was confident he could get it all, and suggested a high probability of total success. It was now June 11th and seemed a long time since early April when I first got the news. It was obviously still early in Sue’s pregnancy and this was now the day that was the start of a new chapter in our lives.
June 11th 2012 was the day of my operation. Sue was with me, the rest of my family would travel to see me after the operation. We sat nervously in the Hospital ward. My name was called, Sue came with me as far as she was allowed, and we hugged. A really strange feeling to not only know you are about to undergo major surgery, but to have cancer removed with no guarantee of success, and then a final glance in the mirror, the last time I will see myself with my own two eyes.
Sue tells me now that as soon as I was gone, she fell to the floor sobbing. She had held it together for me up til that point. She now had a long wait on her own.
5 hours passed and I was out of surgery and in recovery
I find it such a strange sensation being anesthetized. Laying there on the bed with a cocktail of drugs being pumped into your body… then the good stuff! A sudden rush, then nothing. Waking up is just the reverse I suppose. Like a fog lifting it was as if time hadn’t passed a second. A nurse was with me, I felt drunk… I think I came out with something witty to make her laugh, but probably just slurred nonsense!
Sue was there waiting for me in the ward. We smiled at each other, the rest of my family were just turning up too. I didn’t know what to expect. I felt my head, it was bandaged up. I could see OK, so that was good, I could talk… I was on a roll! I needed the toilet, and was still heavily under the effects of anaesthetic, but I thought what the heck and wobbled down the corridor. The nurse found an empty bed, and was not happy at all when I got back. To say that I was not taking this seriously was an understatement!
What they did
The Consultant Surgeon Peter Clarke came by and said it had gone well. They had made a cut down the crease of the nose from the bottom up to the eye and removed the eye. From there they were able to flap open the face and remove the tumour under my cheek, from the orbit and the nasal cavity. It was neatly finished off by sewing back the nose cut and the eye lids were sewn closed. The idea being that the eye lids would now form the back of the eye socket.
(I have since heard of many people that have a similar operation with the addition of a transplanted piece of skin from another part of their body at the same time as the removal of the tumour) In my case my surgeon believed he could get the satisfactory result without the need of further surgery and so we opted for the best aesthetic result)
I was told that the dressing would have to stay on for a week then it would be changed when they removed the stitches. That night I had a broken nights sleep, the nurses would wake me for medication etc.
The next day I went home.
The bandages had come loose in the night, and so I had to have a look! It was as if that part of my face had been airbrushed out, very strange! The other strange thing was having no feeling from my top lip, a 3 inch strip running from there in a straight line running through my eye, forehead and to the back of my head. I was told this was due to the nerve being cut, and that I may regain feeling over time. I soon realised the strong pain killers were of no use, as I couldn’t feel anything anyway! Tramadol are nasty things, terrible night sweats and itches.
The other point to note here is how the stitches meet at the corner, and that there is a larger area of scabbing. This would play a role later.
For now it was simply recovery. A week later I went back to have the stitches out. The corner area was not healing. The surgeon said it may form a hole. The tissues were too strained to take a stitch, but not to worry at this point. In 5 weeks time my 6 week course of Radiotherapy would start, including 2 cycles of chemotherapy. Nothing could be done until that had finished.
The only other things to note was that I lost all sense of smell, and most of my taste. A year on and my taste I think has returned, or maybe I’ve just adjusted? But still no smell, which can have its perks! Finally the ongoing need to flush out the nose is a drain.
Right at the beginning the consultant gave me a douche bottle as he said it would help with the crusting. This by far has been the most annoying, inconvenient, embarrassing, gross but satisfying side effect. It’s a daily task, at least twice a day. Once you get used to squeezing water up your nose (a skill in itself) without drowning yourself, it’s a doddle and as I said satisfying, when you see the gunk come out and being able to breathe properly again! When the hole got bigger it gave an another way to flush the nose out as behind the hole was an open chamber with a direct route down the nose and throat.
Life with an eye patch
One of the trade offs of having one eye is that you can be a pirate. We bought some eye patches from the local chemist. Really disappointing. There were only 2 choices, a hard plastic one, and one the size of a frisbee! The most annoying was that you never really knew if it was in the right position. The elastic was rubbish, irritating and pulled my hair. No matter where I looked I never really found anything that looked like it would be any good, so I put up with it. I am soon to release my own range of eye patches, that are stylish, comfortable and functional.
My coordination was shot to bits. I was grabbing air when reaching for a glass, let alone catching a ball, or indeed kicking it, but as time went on I adjusted and grew in confidence. I went out on my bicycle one day, maybe 2 weeks after the operation. It was a lovely day so I rode down by some farmers fields and the tractor was ploughing its fields. The dust cloud went across my path and I squinted my eye…. BLIND!! For a brief second anything could have happened. I didn’t crash but it was a wake up call.
I now have limitations.
In between this I had a call. Well 2 in fact. The interview I went for… They gave me a job. I explained what had happened and what was going to happen next. I had to decline. I had this conversation on a London bus. I finished my call, a lady approached me and said thank you. Thank you? What for? She said she had bad things going on in her life, she listened to my call, and somehow it made her feel like she had no problem? “Life is too short and precious” she said. I never saw her again. The second call was another job I went for. I didn’t get that one, but I was a close second. Sometimes you can look back and wonder, what if? But reality is real and now. No point in regrets.
A few weeks go by. Sues now well-developed in pregnancy. We made the choice for me to stay in London weekdays. I had total help and support. I lived at least 3 hours travel each way if I travelled from home, my sisters lived in London. I was told to expect extreme tiredness and fatigue. So I shared my time between them in a student house, and on the other hand a nice house. I’m good in the kitchen so I hope I paid back a bit.
Radiotherapy was a doddle. Even for 30 sessions. I can’t lie. The only pain was inconvenience. I got a face mask moulded and had the daily routine of laying on the slab and being clamped down. I was told I did well, so it’s not the same for everyone. I put weight on! I didn’t need it, I blame fast food and cooking to impress. Chemotherapy, the first session was easy. I was only left inconvenienced by the noise of the drip machine. First cycle of chemotherapy was 2 weeks in, the last was 4 weeks in. That hit me like a sledge-hammer. It doesn’t hurt when it goes in, and radiotherapy is just the same as a light switch being switched on/off, although you don’t see the light, It’s the weeks after. Your body is drained. I truly pitty those that endure chemotherapy and radiotherapy.
Radiotherapy doesn’t end there though. It wasn’t until after the radiotherapy had ended the effects really took hold. I had put on weight. A lot. I went up-to 117kg which is big, even for me. I’m a shade under 6’5. The next few months took their toll. I also had a neat bald patch, bald as a baby’s bum rectangular shape on the back of my head where the radiotherapy ballistic missile had passed through my head and killed the hair follicles. Also the burn became more visible on my face and forehead. I had to regularly apply Aqueous cream to keep the skin moisturised. I don’t know how much it cooked my brain. But in the end I slept. I slept at home, I woke to sleep. Sue was still working, and I was still in bed when she came home. I would cook dinner and crash again. I will say it took a good 6 months to feel almost normal.
After being zapped
The hole got bigger. The process seemed to be that the skin would dry at the edges, then scab and fall away, and the hole would get bigger, and so on. There was no real advice as to how far it would go. I never expected how big the hole would get, but radiotherapy is very aggressive and not to be underestimated.
The next step was to prepare me for the titanium implants. I had lost 20 kilos in 2 months. I needed it, but I felt like an old man. No strength. This is now November. Sue is heavily pregnant and although 2 weeks off of her due date, we were worried the arrival of baby was imminent, and almost cancelled, but we pushed ahead.
It was a simple operation, screw in some bolts to hold a prosthetic. At the same time bolt in an anchor to hold my eye brow up, as it had been pulled down by the fact my eyelids were sewn together. It’s always weird looking in the mirror and seeing the 3 studs poking out of my face! It’s weird to touch them, as they are screwed into the skull, they form a solid part of me, but to touch there is no feeling obviously…. weird!
True to form I had to have a look straight away!
The hole in the corner of my eye and nose has grown large now….. it provides an interesting insight to the inside of a head, I suppose if I tried I could get a ping-pong ball in there…. as I said it’s quite big. I can use my fingers to pick away at the crusted on goo that sets everyday each time I flush through…. sounds gross… and it is for anyone watching…. but again satisfying.
The prosthetic could be made once all the tissues were settled, and the implants had healed nicely. This was being made by Sarah at Charing Cross hospital that has many years in making all prosthetics. It took a long time as it could only be made a bit at a time, but I am really pleased with how it went. This is a picture she took when it was nearly done:
Now it is done I am very happy. OK the eye eerily remains open all the time, but it passes off well enough to walk down the street and people don’t really notice. When people do notice, they don’t seem to know what to make of it. The children are the best, they don’t miss a trick. Quite often I am asked what’s wrong with my eye!
Your skin tone changes when we are hot/cold blush or laugh and obviously the prosthetic remains the same colour, so it stands out, but you can’t have everything right?
Beware of the vacuum!
Moving to current time now, I have just been on holiday to Turkey. Swimming is an issue as any water just goes down the hole and down the throat. I took a snorkel mask as it would be ideal. It was ideal, but be warned, if you ever do this with your prosthetic still on. As I waded towards shore, in chest deep water I wanted to clear the steam so pulled the mask off. The vacuum also pulled the eye out and it plopped into the water. I was like a rabbit in a car head lights! I’m now standing in a busy beach with a hole in my head for all to see, and my expensive new eye is at the bottom of the ocean! Common sense kicked in and I simply put the mask back on and managed to retrieve the eye. Lesson learnt!
It had been a challenging year, and the holidays were coming fast. There was something missing though? The arrival of little baby! The due date was the 14th of December and was now late! It was my birthday on Christmas day, which has been a source of fascination to all over the years. Surely he won’t be so late that he would be born on Christmas day too?
Christmas eve came and I prepared the dinner for the next day. As I am the cook in the house I wanted to get ahead so I could actually enjoy my birthday rather than cook all day. Everything was set. 2am on Christmas morning Sue wakes me “I think baby’s coming!” Harry was born Christmas evening. So much for dinner, I got half a turkey sandwich!
So what were the chances of that? Harry was born of Christmas day, the same as his dad! What an amazing and perfect gift. We even made the local paper!
It’s now July 29th and over a year from my operation. I have just had a scan that shows no re-occurrence and things have almost settled to normal levels from the radiotherapy. This is such a relief. Still another 4 years to go.
I am now on the waiting list for the hole to be filled. There is an argument to be had to leave the hole, as if the cancer should return then there is an easy access to it. Plus as I wear a patch or prosthetic, it could be said it doesn’t matter about the hole as no one can see it. I feel though that I don’t want a hole in my head for the rest of my life. I can swim again and it will stop the need to flush out the nose as well.
The original idea was to do a “forehead flap” which sounded OK but the hole is too big now and so an alternative has been found. After a bit of research I am glad, this poor bloke must have had a shock when he woke up!
Instead my Plastic Surgeon Nial Kirkpatrick is taking muscle and skin from my back to fill the hole, which he will plumb into my blood supply by running a vein from my eye to my neck by tunnelling under my face!
Need to talk?
If you need to talk or find out more then please don’t hesitate to contact me or comment here. Up until now I hadn’t spoken to anyone apart from my GP about my treatment, and only then because he would offer “something to help if I felt down” but I never took him up on the offer. Please don’t be ashamed of asking for help.
I had been made aware of a charity called “lets face it” who specialise in supporting victims of cancer and disfigurement. It was only recently that I contacted them. For me it was to learn more and share my experience, this is my therapy, but I urge you to ask for help and advice as the reassurance you receive can really help you along this journey.
If you are like me and left with one eye, or need to wear an eye patch then watch this space. I am excited and pleased to tell you I am soon to release my own range of eye patches, that are stylish, comfortable and functional.
My experience has given me a unique insight to cancer, losing an eye and disfigurement. If you are going through something similar or about to, then my advice is simply to hold on in there. Nothing will happen overnight, the road is long, but there is hope and life is for living and still there to play for! You will get through it,
I will continue to keep you updated with my progress.
Best wishes, Dan x