IAN KIRKWOOD: 2017 the year lost to illness

BATTLE: Ian Kirkwood relaxes on the verandah with his "claustrophobic" Calvary Mater Newcastle radiography mask, happy to have his hair growing back.
BATTLE: Ian Kirkwood relaxes on the verandah with his "claustrophobic" Calvary Mater Newcastle radiography mask, happy to have his hair growing back.

SUDDENLY, I am out the other side of illness.

Five months after having my back teeth pulled out and a feeding line pushed down my esophagus and out my stomach wall, I have finished the chemotherapy and radiography that have been my constant companions.

The doctors are pleased with my progress, although we won't know whether I have some form of "all clear" until later in the year, when I have a scan to see whether my ailment has disappeared or not.

The ailment, readers may be aware, is cancer of the throat and surrounding areas, specifically one caused by the human papilloma virus or HPV. 

This is the virus that Australian schools are thankfully immunising against, so that in years to come it will be a cancer that should hopefully disappear from our population.

Right now, HPV cancer appears to be in something of an epidemic.

Each day at the clinic at the Calvary Mater Newcastle, a cohort of middle-aged men like myself report for treatment, exchanging war stories as we wait to undergo our daily bursts of radiation.

The NSW Cancer Council says HPV caused about 540 throat cancers in Australian men in 2010. This compared with about 1240 HPV cancer cases in women: 820 cervical, 340 other ano-genital cancers and 80 oropharyngeal (throat, base of the tongue and tonsils).

Doctors say the numbers have risen since then although, as the Cancer Council points out, HPV cancers are a subset of a broader range of head and neck cancers.

“While HPV is the likely cause for an estimated 63.5 per cent of oropharyngeal cancers, smoking and alcohol consumption are also associated with oropharyngeal cancer specifically, and are the primary risk factors for most types of head and neck cancer overall,” the Cancer Council told me.

As to the HPV virus itself, the Cancer Council says there are more than 100 different viruses, affecting men and women.

“Most HPV types are harmless, and the majority of people will be infected with at least one type of genital HPV at some point in their life without ever knowing it,” the council says.

“The infection usually clears itself, but in some cases, it can persist and develop into abnormalities or cancer.”

Until now, cancer was something that happened to other people, and I’ve been luckier than many people living with cancer because my illness has not involved pain to any degree. Most of my discomfort came from the treatment itself, and there were times when I had to remind myself that this really was doing me good. All of the nausea and nightmares – psychotic, suicidal dreams where I would hurl myself repeatedly onto power lines – were simply something to go through to get to the other side.

And so they have proved to be. Even being strapped by a claustrophobic plastic mask to the table of the Mater’s linear accelerator – unnerving the first time around – became something to look forward to each day in the end.

I’ve lost almost 15 kilograms in the process and I’m as weak as a kitten. I’m partly deaf from the chemotherapy and it will be a long time before food tastes normal again. But compared to the alternative – a long stint in the cold ground – everything I’ve been through is a small price to pay for the lifesaving therapy I’ve been afforded at Newcastle Private Hospital and the Mater.

To all who have helped me get through this, I can’t thank you enough.


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