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John Lawson is a Health and Safety Officer from Timaru. Early in 2018, a persistent throat infection led to further testing which revealed stage four throat cancer.
Jump to each section of the article:
Here John talks about the need to stay positive in the face of a cancer diagnosis.
Here John tells a story about doing his own research.
Here John talks about using music to get through radiation.
Here John talks about using music to get through radiation.
The need to stay positive
“I've just learnt through all those issues that it’s fine to sulk for a day, then wake up the next morning and have a plan and get on with it. Get on with life and have a plan - that was the process I put into place. Positivity, keeping yourself occupied and doing things.
I gave myself objectives. I gave myself milestones to meet. I am an avid cyclist. I bike five days a week and I would set myself targets. I’ll be planning a trip next year - we want to go back to Europe. And there was targets to meet on the house. It's a big house this so it’s an awful lot to paint and I had a plan each day. There was always something to meet. It’s just the way I am - sort of driven I suppose.
My approach to the whole thing was that my destiny is written in the stars somewhere out there. I don’t know my date of death but it’s up there somewhere, so it didn’t really matter whether I got through it or not, but I was going to give it one hell of a struggle. I got sick of people saying, “You'll beat it.” I said, “No, I can’t beat it but I will give it a hell of a beating and I will do everything within my power to get through this process.” I wanted to get to the end of it and have no regrets. That I'd done everything I possibly could to rid myself of this horrible thing.
So when I was given advice from all the team, the cancer team, sports coach, friends, family, I'd challenge everything. I wouldn’t disregard what they said, but I would say, “I’ve got to try and beat you now.” I would politely listen to them and say, “I'm going to prove you wrong on that”, and I’ve proved so many people wrong. [For example] I had to do exercises every morning, like a yawning exercise and I had to rotate my jaw muscles from side to side. And I had to lay on the floor and basically look at my toes. They'd say do it three times a day, but I'd do them five times a day. As I said, I didn’t want to go through this and have any regrets. I was going to do everything properly and better than what they wanted.
I think it’s an individual thing, how your personality is, but you’ve got to somehow get positivity. You must get positivity in whatever way that you think may work for you. You need to talk to people. The Cancer Society are wonderful - they’ll put you in touch with people. It’s hard sometimes talking to a stranger, and sometimes it’s easier talking to a stranger. There’s a lot of help out there. There's psychologists - great people. You think, “Oh I don’t want to go and see a shrink,” but they are not like that. They are nice people. They are out there to help so don’t bottle it up.
I think it’s important not to feel sorry for yourself. If cancer hits you, it’s happened. It can hit anyone around you, any time. You’re dealt a card and you feel a bit sorry for yourself for a while but it doesn’t do any good. You've got to climb out of that hole and make the best of the rest of your life. And don’t for a minute think you are going to die because you've got cancer. Because that’s absolute rubbish. That’s absolute rubbish! You've got a bigger chance of surviving cancer rather than dying from cancer.
I've never felt so fit, so strong and positive. Cancer never leaves your thoughts. It’s always there. But it’s like a little room in your mind. You’re in the lounge and the cancer is down in the laundry and you just shut the door on it. Now and again the door just opens a bit.”
Doing his own research
“Yeah, I googled it and got a bit depressed because you get a lot of dark stuff out there. There was a guy at work who was a great help. He had been through cancer some years ago and he's recovered but he’s been left with a permanently dry mouth and that. He was a great help and he was very accurate.
It was a bit funny when I was down Timaru Hospital waiting to go in for my biopsy and I was still finding out whether I had cancer or not. I was sitting in the waiting room for about three hours and here was a New Zealand Mountain Biking magazine that was about three or four years old. I opened it up and here's an article written by a guy who had had throat cancer and how he dealt with it. How miserable he had been through treatment, and how he finally managed to get on the bike months after finishing radiation. I found that really good, that article. I actually ripped it out of the book and took it home.
I gathered one or two reference things but just enough to give me a good idea of what I was going to face. It wasn’t going to be nice and this mountain biker’s story was awful because he vomited, he couldn’t eat, and he lost so much weight. He was really bad and I thought, “Well, that’s the worst you can face.”
And there was Brent at work who had been through it. He actually didn’t have radiotherapy, he had drugs to deal with his, and he had an operation. I had no surgery, I just had radiotherapy and chemo. I wasn’t looking forward to chemo! So I gathered up that and made my own conclusions. I said, “Well, this is the biggest fight of my life.” I've had plenty of practise with all the operations and things that have happened to me but this is THE fight. And I felt I had enough information to go and face it, and I did. I faced it extremely well.”
Music and radiation treatment
“Radiation is terrifying. They clamped the mask over my face and head and shoulders. The moulding process, I won’t lie, felt absolutely terrifying because they laid hot towels all over your face and poured this wax stuff and made a mould of your face. It would be so easy to panic because you thought you might suffocate. You really had to take deep, slow, controlled breaths. So making the mould is awful, then they started the radiation treatments. I suppose they weren’t much more than fifteen minutes but they had to clamp the mask on you, get you to lay on the bed and get you comfortable, then they started treatment. And I hated it. You really had to use a lot of self-control.
About the second day, someone said something to me about music. I am a rock music lover. They said, “We've got Spotify here - do you want to listen to some music?” “Yep!” So it was Rolling Stones or Led Zeppelin. I'm deaf as a post and they used to turn up this music for me and I'd lay under the thing, quite relaxed, singing. And it was a secret to get through radiation, that music. It was just so good.
We used to laugh, when I'd say, “Can you play some Clearance Clearwater Revival?” And they'd put on Bob Dylan. Or Van Morrison one day and I don't particularly like Van. I said to them afterwards, “Don’t you know the difference between Rolling Stones and Van Morrison?” It was really funny. The treatment staff were just absolutely wonderful people. We had a few laughs. That music just totally turned my life around. I flew through the treatment after that. If you like music, get them to crank up the Spotify. It does help.”
“One of the worst things was the dog died the week I started treatment. I had to go to Christchurch, and our Labrador, who was 14, died and my wife was left at home with no companion and no walking. It was so hard on her. It was really tough to cope with and had a huge impact.
My daughter said, “We need to grieve for the dog.”
I said, “Yeah, we will grieve for the dog but we are going to get another one straight away. Your mother needs someone to walk with and you can't walk a puppy, so the sooner we get a puppy, then at six months old, you can take him walking.”
“Oh that’s terrible, you can’t do that Dad.”
I said, “No, bugger you, I am.”
It helped occupy my days. I found kennels out Oxford, Rangiora way and rang them up and said, “Have you got dogs to give away?”
They said, “Yes, when we have finished breeding them we give them away”.
I said, “Oh yeah, have you got anything at the moment?”
“Well, we've got a litter, and we've got a mother.”
So I went out there, crook as a dog, and looked at the litter. They were little slugs about four inches longs, these pups. They were a day old and the mother was there. I opened the door and the mother came out and sat on my foot. The pups were fun. I’d get treatment then go out and look at them.
We got the dogs home the day before Christmas and we got the mother and the pup. The puppy’s now ten months old and he weighs 42 and half kilograms. He’s absolutely massive and he's absolutely gorgeous. He wrecks everything around the home but he's great. So it’s been an interesting year!”