19 November 2009

My battle with cancer – part one

My name is Jean Meiring. I’m 28 years old and am doing a graduate law degree at Cambridge. On Wednesday 16 January 2002, the day before I was due to return to the cold and grey UK


My name is Jean Meiring. I’m 28 years old and am doing a graduate law degree at Cambridge. On Wednesday 16 January 2002, the day before I was due to return to the cold and grey UK after a sun-drenched and relaxing Christmas holiday at home in the Cape, I was diagnosed with testicular cancer.

To say that this unexpected news cast my life into disarray is an understatement. I was supposed to start teaching a series of tutorials at university that Friday. But, perhaps more fundamentally, I was stunned by the strange fact that I had cancer. Cancer. Days later I would still mouth the word silently.

From a very young age I had feared this ominous, nebulous disease: as a ten year old I had read of a young South African boy who had died of cancer, and for days convinced myself that I had the very same symptoms.

But, in some ways this news did not come entirely out of the blue. I had spent two months during the 2001 European summer in Hania in Crete. Shortly after my arrival there in late July I had felt a slight hardening in my right testicle. Twice I went to the local hospital to have it inspected.

Cursory inspections
Both inspections were cursory, but both doctors were quite emphatic that this was not something serious – certainly not cancerous – and was somehow related to a hernia operation I had had as a toddler. With the wisdom of hindsight I now realise I should have insisted upon seeing an urologist and having a sonar done at that early stage.

At any rate, I returned to England after my Shirley Valentine stay in Greece and was immediately thrown into the midst of a new academic year at a new university. I did not see a doctor in connection with the hardening in my testicle, which – although still very much present – was only intermittently sensitive. I did, though, increasingly feel a dull pain on the right side of my belly. Now I know this is a typical symptom: muscular strain owing to the increased weight of the testicle.

Foolish you, you may say of my not seeing a doctor sooner. Well, yes, I suppose I was. The day before returning to the UK from South Africa, I thought I would see my parents’ house doctor merely for confirmation that this was nothing serious …

Dull, thudding fear
When the urologist in Somerset West shook his head slowly at the results of the sonar test, indicating that this was indeed something serious, I had a dull, thudding feeling of “Wow, so it’s been this all along.” I was shocked but somehow kept my composure, perhaps because there was so much to be done in the following day and a bit before I was to undergo surgery to remove the offending testicle.

My dad, who had accompanied me to the doctor, and I returned to my parents’ home, and we told my mom the bad news. Remarkably, they both dealt with the news very well. All three of us immediately had a sense of trying to focus upon the solution as soon as possible.

I had to phone my colleagues in the UK post haste to inform them of the diagnosis, and to ask them to find a replacement tutor for my courses. The following day I had to go for a cat scan and another set of X-rays to determine whether the testicular cancer cells had spread. I had been given a preparation to drink for the cat scan and had to be nil per mouth from 9pm on the Wednesday.

These results were indeed also bad news: the cancer had spread to my lymph gland, and there were also some spots on my one lung. This news really scared me. My lung!

Sober advice
In something of a panic I phoned a good friend whose dad is an eminent cancer researcher. Her dad generously agreed to meet with me and set out the basic body of academic knowledge on testicular cancer. He was thoroughly sober in his approach, intent upon giving me an idea of the area of research, without patronising me as a layman.

I left their home significantly more at ease. Happily, I could tell my parents that testicular cancer is a very treatable form of the disease. Even though I had the disease in an advanced stage – inasmuch as it had spread quite far from its origin in the testis – the chances of a positive prognosis were still rather high.

For testicular cancer the survival rate is between 80 and 100 %, depending on the type of testicular cancer (seminoma or non-seminoma) and the totality of other prognsotic factors. Also – and this was something which I foolishly had not realised – the cancer in my lymph gland and lung remained testicular cancer. The latter did not somehow morph into lung cancer.

The following morning I awoke at 6am and my dad took me to the hospital where I was to receive the necessary surgery. I had been nil per mouth since midnight the previous night, and had not slept well.

‘Have you shaved?’
After the check-in process – only now for a bed in a hospital rather than for a berth on a flight – I was taken to my room. The male nurse attending me asked me a plethora of questions. I was perhaps less than helpful and a bit cheeky, owing to the lack of sleep.

When he asked, with an archly raised brow, whether I had shaved, I curtly replied that despite the fact that I had realised that some degree of, er, shaving would be necessary. I had not been told to do so… He supplied me with a mass-issue plastic razor and ushered me to the adjacent bathroom. Upon asking for some shaving foam he said that I would have to shave dry. Like a stubborn child, I kicked in my heels and refused. A small bar of soap was produced.

I awoke after the operation and besides some discomfort in my nether regions, I felt fine. Only after a cautious glance under the bedclothes did I realise, to my relief, that the only incision that had been made was one parallel to the cuts from my earlier hernia and appendix operations, on the underside of my belly.

My scrotum – although sore – was untouched, at least from the outside. Phew. I had had a prosthesis inserted and even to my accustomed eye the damage was not noticeable.

I left the hospital the following day, somewhat stiff and with the gait of an old man. I was to start my first course of chemotherapy the very next Monday, only two days later.

Read more:
My battle with cancer - part two
My battle with cancer - part three


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