When people learned of my cancer diagnosis, they were naturally curious and wanted to know more. The one question I was asked most frequently was “When did I suspect throat cancer and what were my symptoms?”
The truth of it is, cancer was the last thing I suspected, at least at first.
It started with a piece of chicken getting stuck in my throat, early in 2013. I wasn’t choking since I could still breathe, but repeated attempts at swallowing the pesky thing were unsuccessful and resulted in a trip to the bathroom to “cough” it up. I wasn’t nauseous, I felt no pain, and I attributed the episode to a simple case of not chewing properly, silly me, and promptly put it out of my mind.
When the same thing happened with a piece of shrimp a few weeks later, I admonished myself and swore that I would pay more attention to how I was eating. I started to chew every bite thoroughly and cautiously.
The third episode happened in July 2013 and that’s when I realized that there was something more to it than just poor eating habits; but, I didn’t go to the doctor to see what was wrong because I was too afraid of what the diagnosis might be.
The final straw that forced me take action was when a piece of food got stuck in my throat during a company function in August, and this time I was unable to dislodge it. My good friends Carol and Judy managed to discreetly get me out of my workplace to Humber River Hospital. That was not an easy task to do since I was drooling profusely (I couldn’t swallow) and I was gagging because of the lodged foreign material in the throat. It finally dislodged itself, but shortly afterwards the ER doctor determined that I should have a gastroscopy to find the underlying cause. My friend Jim picked me up from the hospital and brought me back to work, where thankfully only a few people were aware of the truth about why I’d suddenly disappeared. It embarrassed me so I mentioned it to no one, not even my own family, except for my husband.
I began to develop a fear of eating. I thought that every bite would stick. I avoided eating in public whenever possible and I dined behind my closed office door or at home. If there wasn’t any other choice, I’d stick to safer foods such as soups. My thorough chewing made me the slowest eater at any table and I no longer enjoyed food. I had loved to cook and I was an adventurous eater, so for me this was pure agony.
At that point I knew I had to go to my own GP and explain what had been happening, and a series of tests were arranged. It’s important to note that up until this time, I had absolutely no other noticeable symptoms at all except the intermittent inability to swallow food, medically known as dysphagia.
X-rays showed that I had arthritis in my throat and they thought that perhaps food was getting caught on the bumps of bone. An ear/throat/nose specialist told me there wasn’t any cancer. A gastroscopy failed to show any signs of throat cancer but instead I was misdiagnosed with esophageal cancer, and arrangements were made with a Thoracic surgeon to have my entire esophagus removed. This resulted in a trip to a specialist who performed a second gastroscopy and found the real culprit — a tumour in my throat where it meets the esophagus. A biopsy confirmed that it was indeed cancer, inoperable and caused by a virus. I received the news the morning of December 7, 2013, and Christmas became a grim event that year.
Not long after my diagnosis I started to experience mild to moderate pain radiating across my collarbones that could only be relieved with Children’s Tylenol; my worsening inability to swallow prevented me from swallowing capsules, and I could only safely use medications in liquid form or those that were crush-able.
The tumour was rapidly growing by this point and it wasn’t long before I could feel it, as though I had a fist constantly pushing at the base of my throat. I remember phoning my husband in a state of panic (I was still working since I hadn’t yet started treatment) because I swear I could actually “feel” it growing. If I’d been paying more attention to my appearance I would have noticed that the “well” at the base of my throat had disappeared.
Fatigue started to set in, and my employer graciously allowed me to work from home.
Treatment started about a month after that, in February 2014, and by then my tumour was 4 cm long and had grown around my voice box. I could only swallow liquids by that time, but at least I could enjoy my morning tea. Eventually I couldn’t even swallow liquids and had to rely completely on my G-tube. A new set of symptoms and side effects settled in during treatments, but that’s another story.
My biggest lesson learned here is this: don’t be afraid to go to the doctor/health care practitioner if you experience any symptoms out of the norm: it might be something easily remedied. Instead of being afraid of the diagnosis, embrace the possibility of effective treatments, and avoid a worsening prognosis. Catching cancer early is key.
Next post: the emotional aspects of a cancer diagnosis
Disclaimer: the symptoms described above are unique to my own personal cancer experiences, and should not be construed as the only possible symptoms of cancer nor as any positive indication of the presence of cancer. Any symptoms or concerns should be brought to the attention of your own health care provider for proper diagnosis and treatment.