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Lessons from a cancer teacher

One very long story

Even if your food gets into you through your nose, you get enough energy to do sight-seeings:-)

Every profession has its’ working tool, well, tools, at least two of them: one’s brain and something else. In case of a language teacher, their second most important tool is their tongue. Teaching something conceived in one’s mind but eventually created by the movement of one’s tongue is best done by showing example, ie by producing sounds, words, phrases, meaningful conversations with the help of your own ‘fleshy muscular organ in the mouth of a mammal, used for’ – among other important actions – articulating speech. That’s exactly what I was doing for over 15 years since my own 17 in various capacities at schools, universities, language courses and more recently as a private language trainer in London.

It may be bad to lose your mind, ie not use your brain properly, but – let’s face it – there are insane teachers and some of them are actually quite good. But what does a language teacher do when they lose their tongue? That was precisely my question when around lunchtime of 19th June, 2015 I heard from my doctor that I had tongue cancer and the standard protocol would include cutting the affected part of my tongue off, potentially replacing it with a piece of skin taken from my wrist, neck dissection and then chemo radiotherapy. Did I understand all this or any other consequences back then? No, silly me. I only concentrated on a single question: how on Earth was I going to teach my students? Then another question came up: how was I going to record the audio-version of my latest Russian language textbook I had finished writing near that time? These questions came up alongside uncontrollable tears out of my eyes – something I hated myself for, keeping apologising for them and trying to figure out how to get to my next clients’ meetings calm and strong, I had about an hour to get back to that state.

I am typing it with a smile on my face now, eight months since my diagnosis, whilst my life has changed – no doubts, as did I as a person and – well – the shape of my tongue. However, I must admit that so far I love these changes even though they’ve come to me in this slightly uncomfortable way.

A year ago I was trying to lose some weight, not that I was fat, but obesity was creeping on me given that I had a sweet tooth, frequented Pret and didn’t do much exercise apart from relatively extensive walking and occasional riding Boris’s bikes. I was 13 stones and hoped to drop at least one of them. As of February 2016 most of British scales move their hands to 10.5 st when I place my handsome self on them. The minor disadvantage of this is that I have to change my whole wardrobe at the time when I have little money after several months out of work, but hey, I love looking at me in shower, or in my bedroom putting on new clothes getting ready for a new day, and it’s also a good excuse to play a fashionista now.

I have been shaving since my late 16, my skin happened to be quite sensitive and we (my skin and I) many a time found ourselves disagreeing on how frequently my hand should press a razor against my skin’s sensitivity. Growing a beard was never an option either – my skin didn’t appreciate it too. Was I destined to fight this battle till the end of my days? Well, here again cancer solved my problem if only temporarily – I had a lovely three months’ break from shaving during and after my radiotherapy. Not bad – it also saved me time and money on shaving foams and razors.

“Ignaty, you look well!” – at some point I hated this phrase, which I heard almost daily after my treatment. How come, did I think, they cannot see that looking good doesn’t mean feeling good. I always interpreted their words as if they were saying that nothing had happened to me or at least that everything was in the past and I must be back to full-time working, being socially active etc.

Now my thinking has changed. If people around me keep telling me I look good, it may mean two things: they are polite and/or I do look damn good. In either case it makes the world a great place to live. Furthermore, I decided to extend it to other issues people often comment on when they talk or write to me. On so many occasions they have remarked that I am strong, and brave, and inspiring. Well, again it for sure means they are polite and nice, but secondly… I have no choice but to believe them.

The English writer Dorothy L. Sayers once said, that the great advantage of telling the truth is that nobody ever believes it. My truth is that I do not feel brave or strong. See for yourselves: when I had my operations (and I had privilege of experiencing two of them last summer – on my tongue and neck and then again on my neck) I was going into the room adjacent to the operation theatre, lying down and waiting for the needle with anesthetic break my skin for me never wake up again. Don’t get me wrong – I never wanted to take my own life, but on these two occasions I strongly believed that not waking up would be a perfect solution to all my troubles with health, finance, work perspectives, relationships, absence of clear life goals… Well, I did feel sorry for surgeons and nurses, since I did not want to cause them unnecessary distress of seeing their patient die, however I awkwardly hoped they had been trained to cope with such things. I had my heart on my side as it has been weak since our (mine and heart’s) childhood. But nothing happened to me – both times I did wake up, drugged and wired and having more holes and scars in my body than had originally been designed.

I remember literature classes at school when we worked on Anton Chekhov’s plays and discussed whether suicide was weakness or strength. We talked and wrote for hours, reflected on this and tried to make our minds. Well, from this point in time I must admit that was a waste of time. I now know for sure: suicide is a weakness and wishing not to wake up after surgery is classed the same no matter what one says to you. So here I am, a double-coward, yet I’ve had dozens of people telling me again and again how brave I am… Ms Sayers, I agree with you wholeheartedly.

Same refers to me being called strong. You know what – a cancer patient has little choice: they can either live or die, not that they can strongly live or strongly end their life. We can choose how to live what is left for us to live – in a miserable or more noble way, but even this is the choice to a certain extent.

What I think about now is that may be if I got to believing others saying I am handsome (in fact, upon reflection, this is a belief based on clear evidence – just google my name, you’ll see for yourselves!), I may well believe that I am also strong and courageous as others keep telling me. And there must be evidence to it somewhere too – I just need time to uncover it.

Time is an interesting issue too. Many cancer survivors write how they started appreciating lives more after treatment. So did I. Inevitably. You see, after treatment I ended up getting tired more frequently, in need of longer and regular sleep (ideally twice daily – hello kindergarten!), my meals take longer (as my saliva glands have been badly damaged by radiotherapy, whatever is left of my tongue is shorter and less mobile, I had four teeth extracted and the rest are much more sensitive thanks to the same radiotherapy), I have no appetite so I need to allocate extra time to visualize what I am going to eat and prepare for my meal, I cannot multitask as I used to. So realistically I have about two-thirds of my work-day lengths left for me to enjoy even though there are still 24 hours in them. I have little choice – I must live what is left thoroughly and more intensely, I must appreciate my existence, I have no right and no time to procrastinate.

Consequently, I no longer can doubt my skills and the fees I charge for my services. I am a good Russian tutor, who authored three successful unconventional language textbooks used world-wide, and so I am worth the money I ask for my classes and yes, I have to increase my hourly fee according to inflation (something I felt awkward about in the past few years). Somewhere along my cancer treatment through which my ability to teach Russian pronunciation was slightly damaged, the ability to charge fairly for my teaching started forming.

There is a tricky point for me here though. With no risk factors and no oncology history in my family, I cannot help thinking that this targeted cancer blow must mean something. The question is how to decipher this sign: whether it is to prove me that teaching is my destiny and I should and can do it whatever are the circumstances; or actually it is as if the universe told me to pull back and concentrate on something else, like writing or charity work.

I love the buzz of public speaking and excitement of being interviewed; I miss my late Sunday evening comings to BBC Radio 4 Live or last minute interviews by CNN; I hate life without being able to throw in phrases like the one above. This is a very strong motivation for me to relearn speaking, getting my s’s and z’s back and finding ways to pronounce th’s with whatever has left of my tongue.

So far though marching through my life: walking across London Bridge to see my clients in the City, getting cold showers in the morning to keep my immune system strong, putting an eye mask on to have more sound sleep, driving my campervan for an exciting day in the hills – I keep chanting to myself and myself only, deep in my mind:

I am healthy. I am wealthy. I am happy. I am fit.

I am healthy. I am wealthy. I am happy. I am fit.

I am healthy. I am wealthy. I am happy. I am fit.

I am healthy. I am wealthy. I am happy. I am fit…

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