It’s Friday, March 12th and I’m writing this in my bed at Christie’s Hospital where I’ve been since Wednesday after a successful operation to remove a tumour in my neck. A bit of a bummer that I should even be here, after getting the all clear just before Christmas but don’t let me get ahead of myself. Speaking of heads…
My last blog bought you up to date with everything that went on since discovering the mole on my head early last year and my little campaign that I got the opportunity to do on the back of it. The messages and feedback were so lovely, I really felt as if it had made a difference however small, which made it all the more difficult to pull back from the interviews when I discovered a new lump in my neck in early February.
I was just resting my neck on my left hand while I was working on a new tune on the piano with my right when I noticed the small lump about an inch below where they had removed some lymph nodes in my earlier operation. I had learnt from my previous experience not to put it off so I called the hospital the same day and they arranged an appointment for me that week. I got another complimentary facial and neck massage and the doctor confirmed it was an enlarged lymph node but I shouldn’t panic, it was more than likely just doing it’s job in draining fluids away from the site of my operation just above it but to make sure I would be booked in for an ultrasound which would show immediately if there was anything to worry about, and if there was, then there would be a biopsy.
It was only a few days before the ultrasound appointment came through and when this new doctor said he wanted to take a sample ‘just to make sure’, I called him on it. He admitted that he didn’t like the look of it but I should try not to worry. Those familiar words. To be fair, most of the staff at Christie’s are more prone to say “I’m not going to tell you not to worry because that won’t help”! It was a tense week of trying not to worry but the results didn’t care about my anxiety and they came back positive. There were cancer cells in this new lymph node lump that had very unusually managed to bypass the nodes that were recognised as the sentinel ones in my earlier operation. I was told that I’d need a full body scan to see if it had spread any further and quite a big operation to remove all the lymph nodes in the left side of my neck and also quite a large muscle.
This is where I need to be completely honest with you, otherwise what’s the point? I’m hoping this will be read by people going through similar situations and you need to know that you’re not alone. The emotions you’re feeling and your mental health is all completely justified. I’ve written and spoken about my anxiety at the end of 2020 when I was going through this for the first time and now I can tell you, it doesn’t get any easier.
The fact that those cancer cells had managed to bypass my sentinel lymph nodes made me imagine them as being quite resilient and determined little bastards so obviously they would have managed to spread further. Every ache and pain that I felt became cancer. Every lump became a tumour. I should say at this point that I’ve had back pain for fifteen years since an on stage accident when I went flying, dressed as a tribal Princess with huge fake breasts in a grass skirt and a missionary thrown over my shoulder, landing awkwardly. It’s a better story than falling off a ladder. But now that back pain was suddenly worse and felt different. I’ve also had a lot of lipomas over the years, small fatty benign tumours just under the skin but now all of these became suspicious too, even the ones I knew had been there for twenty years.
I had to cancel the few interviews that I still had arranged. They all wanted to focus on my good fortune at getting the all clear and catching my melanoma in time and I didn’t want to overshadow the positivity of my message with potential bad news. After one interview where I couldn’t bring myself to correct them and at the same time felt like I was being a liar, I decided to hold off on any more public speaking. The song was out there and we’d had some great exposure in the press and on ITV and BBC, now I needed to focus on the situation closer to home.
I was back to putting on a bit of a front for my kids and family while completely falling apart inside. Back to the sleepless nights, going to the darkest places, continually imagining the worst and hating the fact that this disease was changing me from the usual optimistic, happy, outgoing person that I usually was.
This time though I had a weapon that I was hoping I had helped to make less ‘secret’ since my campaign… I called Macmillan.
A lovely, quietly spoken gentleman took me through a spoken interview to establish what my concerns were and where my mental health was heading and he agreed that I could benefit from speaking to a trained counsellor. Within a week I was contacted by a wonderful lady who worked for Bupa and I was offered 6 weeks of therapy with Macmillan taking care of the costs. Amazing.
My scan was booked for 1st March with my operation on 10th so I would have 2 therapy sessions before I’d get the scan results and they were so helpful. I’m not going to tell you that it stopped my fears or anxiety but it helped me to understand why I was feeling the way that I was and perhaps stopped me being so harsh on myself for not being ‘stronger’.
It was my Birthday on 4th March so I was cooking a yummy lunch for Emmah and myself when I realised I’d left my phone upstairs. When I checked it, I’d missed a call from the hospital thirty minutes earlier so I immediately called them back and they checked my notes and confirmed that my surgeon and a senior nurse had both accessed my records earlier. The receptionist said she’d let them know that I called and they’d phone me back as soon as they could.
So that was lunch out of the window. Emmah and I both immediately lost our appetites and we pushed the cripsy fish with garlic leeks around our plates imagining that the nurse had seen the scan results and had needed to call my surgeon. That couldn’t be good.
It was almost an hour before my phone rang again and Emma, the wonderful senior nurse at Christie’s announced who she was and where she was calling from.
Time seemed to slow down.
I was kneeling on the carpet in my studio leaning on the small coffee table, Emmah (the ‘h’ on the end differentiates her from the Senior Nurse and also gives you an idea of just one of my Mother-in-laws eccentricities) was standing next to me. Emma was speaking in such a calm voice that it could only be to give bad news:
“We’ve looked at your scan results. Sorry we missed speaking to you earlier…”
This was becoming unbearably tense…
“…and they’re all clear.”
“What?!” I blurted out. Emmah’s face was ashen.
“They’re all clear. The tumour is just in your neck and the surgeon is confident that he can operate on it successfully.”
I was silently sobbing far too hard to able to reply to either Emma or Emmah, all I could do was give Emmah a thumbs up as she threw her arms around me and I sobbed a garbled “thank you” down the phone to Emma. She asked if I had someone with me just as my own Emmah squeezed me harder and I sobbed for a good thirty minutes.
Everything came out through those tears as we sat on the sofa in the studio. I told Emmah the darkest places I had been to, how the anxiety had threatened to overwhelm me so many times and the sadness that I felt so deep in my soul when I imagined the worst. But as I spoke, I felt the old me returning. The optimism that I hadn’t felt for so long, an excitement for the future and all the things I had to look forward to came rushing back and they bought more tears. Tears of relief that I can feel welling up in me again as I write this today.
So, here I sit in my new pyjamas on my hospital bed with wristband, fluids, drains and machines that go ‘ping’ all around me. Two days ago I checked in at 7.30am and I walked to my surgery at 8.45, slightly disappointed, as I was the last time, that it was a very undramatic entrance into the operating theatre and not rushed through swinging doors on a gurney like in so many films and TV programs. I was assured that a calm entrance with the patient walking in, fully coherent is always preferable. The operation was longer than expected at just under six hours but it went well. There was a risk of damaging nerves affecting my shoulder, arm, smile and even tongue but that was all avoided by my incredible surgeon Mr. Kosutic. I’m told that most of my shoulder and left side of my neck will have some permanent numbness and I’m going to have a pretty impressive scar from the fifty or so stitches but as I told Emmah, and Emma, girls love a good scar.
We’re not quite out of the woods yet. The scan can only recognise any abnormalities larger than about 5mm so there’s a chance that a few bastard cancerous cells have still snuck into a corner of my body so I have about a year of immunotherapy treatment but that’s come on leaps and bounds in the last few years and can be very effective at ‘mopping up’ as my doctor described it.
It still astounds me that there are humans out there who dedicate their lives to gaining knowledge and learning skills that will save the lives of people they have never met. From researchers and scientists, to nurses, doctors and surgeons. Thank goodness you found your passion in saving lives and not just in standing on a stage trying to make people laugh. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, it’s just that it takes a certain disposition to spend your life dealing with blood, bones and organs rather than a job that involves applause, sequins and signing autographs. I knew when I was seven years old and I cut my thumb on the edge of a baked bean tin then promptly passed out at the sight of my own blood that it would be applause and not arteries that would dictate my career.
Thanks for reading more of my drivel, thank you for your comments and support and please remember, Macmillan are there for you if you need them but they also need your support too if you’re in a position to donate. See the link below.
Stay happy, stay healthy and always be kind.
Love Jon x
To donate to Macmillan: https://www.macmillan.org.uk/donate