“So,” I asked Dr. Lee as I touched the lump, “what the hell is that?”
— Glenn Deir, from “Sick Joke”
Information is power, they say, so when I felt a hard ridge of tissue at the base of my right breast one day this summer — once I’d wiped away my tears of self-pity and shook off the initial shock and fear — I immediately set out to find out what the heck it was.
My husband and I promised each other years ago that we would never intentionally neglect our health or live in denial, where a suspicious lump is something you hope just goes away on its own.
So, to keep up my end of things, I made a doctor’s appointment. My family physician examined me and didn’t feel anything out of the ordinary, but he knows me well enough to know I needed to be sure, so he arranged for a mammogram.
That came back clean, but the woman who performed the procedure could feel something, too, and so my doctor sent me for an ultrasound.
I don’t believe in worrying people needlessly, so I didn’t tell too many people, but I lived in a dread for awhile. I found myself constantly touching the lump, which burned with pain — exacerbated, no doubt, by my constant probing. At night I lay awake thinking of how much I loved life, and how this new fear had drained all the joy from it. I felt like I was living in black and white.
The day of the ultrasound, I watched a computer screen — which is quite intimidating when you don’t know what you’re supposed to be looking for — as the technician moved the probe over my skin. The images were as enigmatic as the surface of the moon.
Luckily for me, I didn’t have to watch and wait and wonder for long.
“There’s nothing there,” I was told.
Could there be scar tissue caused by years of wearing bras with underwire, I asked?
“I don’t know,” the male doctor quipped. “They don’t teach us much about women’s bras in med school.”
We shared a laugh, but then it’s easy to laugh when there’s nothing wrong with you.
It’s a lot tougher when there is.
In CBC reporter Glenn Deir’s case, that means throat cancer, and yet he somehow manages to give us plenty of laughs as he describes his medical ordeal in his new memoir, “Sick Joke: Cancer, Japan and Back Again.”
I found myself laughing out loud in several places, particularly when he reflects on the absurdity of chit-chat when someone is giving you an enema.
Other sections of the book were much harder to get through. You reach the end being amazed at his strength, guts and honesty.
Throat cancer is not pretty, and he doesn’t sugarcoat anything.
The treatment is prolonged and agonizing.
Everyone who has ever battled cancer or known someone who has should read “Sick Joke.” You will finish it with a renewed respect for what the human spirit can endure, and what a lust for life can get you through.
Most of all, I would recommend it to anyone who cares about boys and men. Because “Sick Joke” makes a very strong case for vaccinating boys against the human papilloma virus (HPV), just as the provincial government has done with teenage girls.
Most people are aware that HPV causes cervical cancer. Fewer people know that it can also cause throat cancer and anal cancer.
According to a 2007 article by health reporter E.J. Mundell on the website Sexualhealth.com, “a team of researchers at Johns Hopkins University confirmed that infection with HPV via oral sex is by far the leading cause of throat cancer.”
Now, talking about sex may embarrass some people, but there’s no sense in pretending it doesn’t happen, particularly if frank discussion can lead to prevention.
As Glenn so bluntly observes in his book:
“As a child, I was vaccinated against tuberculosis. The twenty-first century has a new scourge that school kids should be protected against. Little boys will grow up and they will have sex. Without protection, they risk contacting HPV. You don’t want your little boy going through what I went through.”
In Canada, the Gardasil vaccine that offers teenage girls protection from HPV was approved for use in boys and men in February.
Currently, the provinces are waiting on a recommendation from the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) as to whether a formal vaccination program for boys is a worthwhile investment.
“The program has not been extended to males in Newfoundland and Labrador or any other province in the country,” the provincial Department of Health said in a statement when I inquired about the possibility. “There has not been a recommendation from PHAC at this point related to males and HPV.”
Many teenage girls have been vaccinated, though, and that’s real progress. As someone who lost a good friend to cervical cancer, I will do everything in my power to encourage young women to protect themselves against HPV so that they never have to suffer as she did.
Boys deserve the same consideration.
The fact that cervical cancer is more common than throat cancer is cold comfort to the person with throat cancer.
Meanwhile, as we wait for a signal from the federal government, Glenn Deir and his brave memoir will at least raise awareness of the issue and get more people talking openly about it.
Thanks, Glenn. Your book just might save somebody’s life.
Pam Frampton is The Telegram’s story editor. She can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.