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Coping with a diagnosis of cancer

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Cliff is 63 and he is married with grown up children. In 2002, he was diagnosed with tongue cancer, which was treated with intensive radiotherapy and surgery. This is his account of how he discovered a lump on his tongue, and what he went through while waiting for, then getting, his diagnosis.

Finding a lump

I’d had a 'scratchy' throat for a couple of weeks so one morning after cleaning my teeth I opened my mouth wide and stuck my tongue right out, to see if it was inflamed. That’s when I spotted the growth right at the back of my tongue. It sent shivers down my spine - it looked horrible, very red and covered in tiny blood vessels. There was something growing on my tongue that definitely shouldn’t be there! It looked like it should be painful but it wasn’t.

I was immediately concerned, so I got an appointment with my GP the same day. As soon as he examined the growth, he said that it would need further investigation. From his manner I realised that that it could be serious, and despite my GPs attempts not to alarm me, I felt very frightened.

Going to hospital

My GP made an appointment for me to see a specialist straight away. Two days later, I went to my local hospital to see an oral surgeon. He decided that I needed to see a more specialised surgeon at another hospital and it was arranged for me to see this other doctor the same day. He examined the growth using a nasendoscope, which is a tube that is put up the nose and down into the throat, and contains a light and a camera. He then arranged for me to have a biopsy, under general anaesthetic, two days later.

My wife came with me to all these appointments and she provided me with the support I needed through such a stressful situation. So far, no one I’d seen had mentioned the word 'malignant' or 'cancer', so I clung to the hope that the growth was something that could be treated easily.

Waiting for results

Because I did not feel ill, it was easy to go into denial during the 11 days that I waited for my diagnosis. Even when I had to go back to the hospital for an MRI scan, I assumed this was normal, so I didn’t see it as significant. I decided to shut out all thoughts of my condition until I was given the results.

I stayed away from the internet, and I spent my time helping my son to renovate his flat. I held on to the hope that the growth was benign, but I suppose I was also preparing myself for the worst. During this time the only people who knew what was going on were my family and a few close friends. They really helped to keep me positive.

Getting my results

I was told that the growth on my tongue was cancerous in a private room in the same hospital where I had my biopsy. A doctor and a specialist nurse broke the news in a very sensitive and sympathetic way, but I was still very shocked.

My wife was very distressed, and comforting her prevented me from feeling too sorry for myself. The doctor who delivered the bad news assured us that the cancer was treatable and told us that I had been referred to Mount Vernon, our local cancer centre. These pieces of information gave my wife and I the hope we needed to avoid despair.

Telling others

I told everyone in my close circle of family and friends that I had cancer. I suppose that being older and having grown up children makes it easier for people to cope with bad news concerning illness - it goes with the territory. The shock of the news was also tempered by the fact that it was treatable.

Cancer is such an emotive word that at first I found it upsetting to use it when talking about myself. There were plenty of tears up to the start of treatment, but soon I needed to focus on coping with the treatment and side effects.

My advice

Being diagnosed with and treated for cancer was very difficult. Even now, four years later, I have to cope on a daily basis with the after-effects of my treatment. But there have been positive outcomes from my diagnosis too, like a greater appreciation of my family and friends.

If you are worried about a symptom or a lump, go to your doctor. It takes courage, but you are protecting your most valuable asset - your health.

If you are coping with a diagnosis, have faith in your doctors and stay positive. Draw strength from the love of your family and friends - it really helps them too.

Factfile:

  • Tongue cancer is relatively rare. 1,254 people were diagnosed with this cancer in the UK in 2002
  • It is more common in men than women
  • Treatments used for tongue cancer include surgery, radiotherapy and chemotherapy
  • 'Open Up to Mouth Cancer' is a national campaign run by Cancer Research UK. Our main priority is to raise awareness of the early warning signs of mouth cancer. This helps doctors find cancers at an early stage when treatment is easier and there is a good chance of a cure

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Updated: 28 September 2009