As readers know, I was diagnosed with stage III squamous cell carcinoma, head and neck, early 2013. It hadn’t been bothering me and from photos must have been there a decade but I wanted to know what it was.
According to the medical experts, my delaying chemo, radiation and surgery even a month would prove fatal – each of which I found, according to published research, does significant damage, with only about half the patients surviving five years, but all with permanent disability to some or all parts of their head and neck. If you want a blow by blow account of how corporate medicine deals with cancer of the oral cavity, try this book by one with ultimate faith in it, and none at all in alternative medicine, the late lamented John Diamond:
People who survived chemo and radiation told me it was the most awful experience of their life. “I lived for the last [radiation] session,” one said. “It was pure agony. I willed myself to survive until that day came and went.” A Nottingham seller of the Big Issue who’d had tongue cancer shared his chemo experience, urging me to accept it too. “I won’t lie to you, mate; it’s like fire going through your veins. I wanted to die. But I have a kid – so you get through it – because you have to.”
Being someone who puts off tackling a splinter, I knew like 25% of such patients, I wouldn’t survive the first year. But that turned out to be a blessing, because for the next two and a half years I travelled the Earth looking for another way, and in the process met more than a hundred wonderful souls I otherwise would never have known. Earnest professors, bow-tied surgeons, immunologists, ex-oncologists, no-nonsense nurses, therapists, surgeons, MDs and maverick inventors from Italy, California, Texas, Mexico, Lausanne, Germany and rural South East England.
I met a KCL lecturer, specialists at London’s homeopathic hospital, and an oncology professor who, alarmed by the Conservative Party’s treatment of the NHS, turned his hand to politics. I was under the care of the son of immunotherapy pioneer Josef Issels, who’d stood up to Nazi Germany and was punished by a stint on the front lines followed by years in a Soviet gulag. A doctor in his twilight years who worked at MSK, and survived pancreatic cancer who told hair-raising stories of one treatment – if you can even call it that – involving complete removal of the jaw. I winced. My God, how long did they survive? A sad smile. “Not long, thankfully.” There were vivacious, warm hearted female surgeons and specialists at one of the world’s best hospitals, the Angeles in Tijuana, one showing me pictures of her hometown, which was paradise apart from the lack of jobs. One renowned oncologist turned inventor cured a close friend of Vladimir Putin and was thus invited to sit beside the Russian President at a Moscow parade. I conferred with alternative therapists in Germany, Switzerland, America and England, many of whom had backgrounds in oncology and surgery, some to the tune of thirty years.
Then there were the patients – dozens from every conceivable strata of life: all friendly, eager to share their knowledge without any thought of personal gain. A gorgeous actress from Seinfeld, now in the Californian Hills. A wild-eyed London musician with pancreatic cancer who’d spent all his money on one last record and tour simply because he’d been told he had a year to live. He then found alternative therapy and recovered completely. How did he feel now, I ventured one day as he drove me to the station. Puffing on a cigarette: “I feel f***ing broke, mate!” I’ll never forget the large, jolly Kuwaiti who had almost undergone a very risky surgical procedure for kidney cancer. But when he’d asked why they would attempt something so radical with such a low chance of success and the reply was “well, you’re going to die anyway,” he walked out, never to return – and walked into the alternative therapy world where I’m glad to say he was doing well last time I saw him.
That I know of, only four patients I encountered while in alternative clinics had been through chemo, radiation and surgery before our paths crossed. All younger than me, one a little more than half my age. A bright eyed, frightened American lady in the final stages of breast cancer, her controlling and highly disapproving family (who’d insisted she undergo chemo and surgery “to cure her” 18 months earlier) hovering nearby. Terrified they might overhear our conversation, she slipped me her email address so I could report on my next stop in Santa Barbara. A dear, frail Canadian soul, brain withered by chemo, with his devoted wife, searching for his last hope. They inched their way into the clinic, sat down carefully, introduced themselves and detailed to us fellow patients, laid back with our IVs, how they’d travelled from Canada to Europe, then all throughout America, before arriving here. There followed an awkward pause – my specialty: “So… were you searching for cures, or fleeing the law?” Thankfully they laughed.
There was a Raytheon employee, a smiling Vietnamese man with an advanced case of my disease; so warm-hearted he refused to accept any rare off-label medication from the clinic’s MD unless I too was offered the same; at the age of nine he’d walked three months through the jungle to escape the savage American bombing.
A stunning Colombian woman cared for by her dutiful 16 year old son, had undergone radiation and sacrificed her layrnx to surgery but now, years later, struggled with a nine centimetre tumour in her throat which had started to break down – and therefore expand – under slow, natural therapy. The case seemed hopeless. After an emergency tracheotomy she was airlifted to New York where, once again, they began radiation. After the first session she pleaded that she couldn’t face another. I won’t ever forget her WhatsApp message: “Iain, they say to me go home and die then, not waste their time.”
Sadly all these four seekers after health have now passed away. The last, the man who’d insisted I share his medicine, only two weeks ago after a bruising experience of radiation in which he, too, sacrificed his voice. I received a beautiful message from his wife, and I’m very honoured to hear he remembered me.
It might be called medicine, but some of it seems a very bitter kind.