I always knew cancer was a real possibility for me. Both my mother and father died of the disease—my mother of lung cancer and my father of bone cancer—so when I started having chronic throat and chest infections, I was diligent about seeking immediate medical attention and felt relieved each time the problem was resolved, at least temporarily. But when the right side of my neck became so swollen that it felt like a golf ball had become trapped there, making it difficult to eat, swallow, and speak, I knew instinctively it could be cancer.
An initial diagnosis of mumps failed to quell my growing sense of unease, and after aggressively pursuing the aid of other physicians, in March 2016, I was finally diagnosed with stage IV throat cancer. My life will never be the same.
Living With the Remnants of Cancer
ALTHOUGH 6 WEEKS of cisplatin and 30 rounds of radiotherapy have put me in a complete remission, and I’ve been cancer-free for nearly a year, the cancer and its aftermath have left me unable to eat or speak at times and susceptible to near-fatal bouts of pneumonia and sepsis— after one incident, my family was told I had 2 hours left to live. I also now have head and neck lymphedema and trismus, which are compounding my problems with speech and my ability to eat, thus slowing my recovery.
A hefty 312 pounds before my diagnosis, the cancer has whittled down my frame to a petite 124 pounds—not a quick weight-loss program I would ever recommend. Although I recently regained the ability to drink liquids, I’m not sure I’ll ever be able eat solid foods again and rely on a feeding tube and nutritional supplements to stay alive. The severe weight loss and muscle atrophy from long hospital stays and inactivity have left me too weak to walk more than a few steps, forcing me to confine nearly every aspect of my daily routine, including sleeping, to my living room.
Perhaps cruelest of all, because the struggle to speak is so painful, I am relegated to communicating with my wife and children through texts, robbing us of the intimacy of normal conversation.
Cancer Is a Family Affair
MY CANCER DIAGNOSIS has also put my family and me in financial jeopardy. An actor, teacher, and author of children’s books prior to my throat cancer, my illness has limited my ability to pursue these professions I love, cutting my income in half and making me totally reliant on my wife for my care. She is my hero.
The diagnosis has also affected the lives of my children, Arran, 18, and Sam, 10, in different but equally profound ways. Arran refuses to acknowledge I am sick and won’t let me discuss my cancer with him. Sam, who has Asperger syndrome, is in a constant state of fear that I’m going to die and won’t leave my side when he is home from school. My wife and I are working hard to help our children adjust to the new normal of cancer, and I’m just beginning to feel a flicker of optimism that we will be okay.
This past year has been traumatic for us all. There have been times when I’ve cried worrying how my family would survive without me and at the same time wishing I would close my eyes and never open them again. But slowly, I’m starting to come out of my depression, and, despite my physical limitations, I feel like life is worth living again.
Living With Uncertainty
BESIDES MY FAMILY, the other heroes in my life are my oncologist and members of my medical team, who have worked so hard to keep me alive and are always honest with me about my prospects for the future. I know my future is uncertain and there is a good possibility my cancer will recur. In the meantime, I’m getting back to the business of life.
Although my physical problems have prevented me from returning to acting and teaching, they haven’t stopped me from writing a blog about my cancer experience, which I’ve also turned into a book. I hope my writing brings solace to others going through a cancer diagnosis. Expressing myself through my writing has helped me get some perspective on what I’ve been through and what might lie ahead, and it makes me less fearful of the future.
My wish is that my story helps other survivors face their cancer reality in a way that is most significant to them. Cancer has robbed me of a lot of things I love, but it has also reminded me of all the wonderful aspects of my life I still have, including a loving family, good friends, and a meaningful career.
For me, life is still worth living. ■
Mr. Donbavand lives in Lancashire, England. He is the author of over 100 children’s books, including Scream Street, a series of comedy/horror novels, which have been adapted for an animated television program in the United Kingdom; and Tommy v Cancer: One Man’s Battle Against the Big C (Serpo Books, 2017; available at Amazon.com).