ESSAY John Harrison

NWR Issue 103

My Year as an Island

Unattributed quotations are from Shakespeare’s The Tempest

I began 2012 worrying about my age: I would be sixty in October. In March I contracted a mild sore throat that didn’t bother me, but neither would it go away. In June I started coughing up blood. The locum at my GP’s calmly said it could be TB or lung cancer, as though I wouldn’t mind which. The hospital X-rayed me for tuberculosis. It’s making a comeback; isn’t everybody.

Succumbing to internet curiosity, I checked up on throat cancer survival rates: 90%, not too bad. On Friday I returned to the same doctor for my results. He asked, ‘How can I help you?’ He had forgotten me.

I reminded him I might only have three months to live. He looked shocked. I wasn’t too relaxed about it myself.

‘There was nothing on the X-ray, so you don’t appear to have TB.’

‘And cancer?’

‘Oh,’ he looked hastily at his screen, ‘No sign of it.’

It was a month before I went to ENT to see Dr Parikh at St Mary’s Hospital, next to Paddington Station, for an endoscopy; a tiny camera would tour my throat. Two days before I went, I borrowed my partner Celia’s computer and found she had been consulting too. The throat cancer survival rate was actually 50:50 after 5 years, which was terrifying. I had found the statistics for a very benign and treatable form.

Dr Parikh showed me how healthy everything looked as the video went into a pig’s ear, that turned out, when I had adjusted my sense of scale, to be my nostril. Then right at the end, behind my tongue, was an area which was not normal: two little nodules. Cancer was back on the menu. I left, shaking slightly, weaving through the shabby backs of the hospital, between its oldest buildings and its cheapest kit-built infills. I phoned Celia from Praed Street, among its downbeat shops, locksmiths, cafes, and suppliers of printer ink refills. The backdrop to these memories, the landscape of this illness, was being formed: low rent. First, I calmed myself down to a relatively philosophical state, but my head was still light and my heart hammering as I told her. When I got home we collapsed in each other’s arms. But a part of me was already standing to one side, watching us.

On 25 August, the Bank Holiday Saturday, Dr Parikh phoned me at home. There was an alien feature deep in the base of the tongue, and the lymph glands on the left side were swollen. One option was cancer, a type that is good at despatching cells to start colonies in other places, especially the liver; then you die. There were two other options, neither very likely. My throat felt exactly like his detailed description of cancer...

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