Wednesday 24 April 2019

Irish writer Colm Toibin writes powerful account of his recent diagnosis and treatment for testicular cancer

Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín
Colm Tóibín
Melanie Finn

Melanie Finn

Author Colm Toibin has revealed that he was diagnosed with testicular cancer last year.

The award-winning author was in LA when he realised one of his testicles was swollen and became increasingly more painful. 

Last June he made an appointment with a leading Urologist in Dublin, who “seemed concerned” and carried out a series of blood tests and an ultrasound on his testicles.

His consultant decided to put him on antibiotics in the meantime and the swollen veins in his testicle disappeared but one of them also got harder and bigger. 

Writing in the London Review of Books in his usual inimitable fashion, he said the decision was quickly made to remove his right testicle and he then had an agonising wait as further tests were carried out. 

“A week later the phone rang and I was told that I had a cancer of the testicles that had spread to a lymph node and to one lung,” he wrote.

“Instead of seeing the urologist, I would now need to see an oncologist. For a few days I comforted myself by pretending that, because of my abiding interest in the mysteries and niceties of Being, I had to see an ontologist. Nobody except one of my fellow Irish novelists thought this was funny.”

He was then told that the only option open to him was chemotherapy. 

“Four week-long sessions of it, with a break of two weeks between each session. He (oncologist) told me I could stay in the hospital while getting the chemo, which seemed sensible. 

“If something went badly wrong in the middle of the night, I thought, I would be in the belly of the whale rather than at home wondering what to do. ‘It’s curable,’ he said, his voice low and reassuring, his tone modest and reserved. ‘We have not lost anyone to it yet.’”

He said the wonderful staff made “the future seem manageable and bearable” and he presented himself to hospital the following Sunday.

The writer said the hospital also discovered shortly after that the cancer had spread to his liver and he would need more intensive sessions of Chemotherapy, also known as the Juice. 

Speaking about his first session, he said: “The juice was neither cold nor hot. It caused no pain. I wondered if all the talk about it wasn’t exaggerated. Instead of shaking all over, I read the newspapers. I listened to the radio. 

“I had my lunch. When the chemo finished, I had a shower and put on my dressing-gown and slippers and did a tour of the hospital corridors to see if anything was going on.”

He began a course of chemotherapy: four sessions in hospital, each a week long, with breaks of two weeks at home between each session, where he said he lay on the sofa in his Dublin house and read a bit.

“I found that I had no interest in listening to music. For the next three months, I would not need to shave. My eyebrows would thin out but not disappear. 

“The hair on my head would more or less go... that first week after chemo I lost any desire to eat or drink, and I lost all sense of taste. Instead, my sense of smell became acute.”

His friend Catriona Crowe organised a house clean-up and shared news of the world, along with food that might be palatable. 

He said that he was in excruciating pain the weekend Pope Francis was in Dublin, as he remained at home drinking morphine.  

“It was not merely that the chemo left me fully thoughtless so that as time went on I could not even read; the effect of the drug darkened the mind or filled it with something hard and severe and relentless. It was like pain or a sort of anguish, but those words don’t really cover it. 

“Everything that normally kept the day going, and the mind, was reduced to almost zero. I couldn’t think. All I could do sometimes was concentrate on getting through the next five minutes because contemplating any longer stretch of time under the pressure of the chemo and the steroids (and perhaps some other drug) was too hard.”

He said that by the end of his treatment, he barely recognised himself as he talked to his reflection in the mirror. 

“It would take a while before his hair and his eyebrows began to grow again. It would take him even longer to get used to having only one sad, lonely ball,” he stated. 

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