Ester Marsh: Back to the land of the living

Published 12:00 am Sunday, November 14, 2021

When my surgeon and his PA told me the first two weeks after surgery were going to be rough, they were not kidding.

What’s so weird is that many cancers, especially in early stages, don’t hurt. I remember my younger sister found a swollen lymph node under her arm 15 years ago and that ended up leading doctors to find breast cancer. She never hurt until the surgery and then heavy chemotherapy.

Same in my case:  I felt something was going on in my throat and lymph nodes, but discomfort was all I would call it.

My surgery was Oct. 25 and it went very well. Besides the one cancerous lymph node and cancerous tonsil, all margins were clean. I woke up from anesthesia and felt like a ball was stuck in my throat. When I was trying to talk, it sounded like I had been sucking on helium.

I kept asking, “What’s wrong with my voice, what’s wrong with my voice?” They assured me it was due to swelling, and my vocal cords and voice box were perfectly fine. Phew, can you imagine if I couldn’t talk, or sounded like Donald Duck?

Finding the right pain medication was a big challenge because I get sick from many strong versions. When I was brought to my room, I started to get very nauseated. You don’t want to throw up after just having throat surgery where they took both my tonsils, the cancerous left tonsil radical (from the very top to the very bottom) and “filleted” everything that tonsil was touching from the back of the throat, sides and even tongue.

But because they gave me morphine (which makes me very nauseated) and the anti-nausea medicine didn’t work, the first thing I did was throw up. Then they finally figured out a medicine that took the edge off so I could manage the pain.

I was able to go home the next day because my husband was able to care for me and did so very well. I have had many surgeries, twice on my neck with cervical fusions, gall bladder, C-section and inguinal hernia with my first child — too many to mention them all. I’ve had plenty of injuries, especially during my judo career, but this post-surgery feeling brought me to my knees. Not being able to swallow well, especially the first few days, water would go into the big “hole,” or as I called it the abyss. And after I was done swallowing, that water would come from the abyss and try to go into my windpipe. I would choke and then panic.

Besides pain and panic of not being able to breathe, it was a very rough 10 days and my wonderful husband was with me every step of the way. At day 10, I felt instead of moving backward, I was starting to head forward slowly. I had lost 15 pounds (and yes, all muscles).

However, I know I would get better, and it would all come back with time. The two-week mark hit, and I am excited. I am really supposed to start feeling better now! On day 15, I got a stomach bug. I thought, “Please God, I am already frail and weak — not a stomach bug!”

So aftering being stuck to the toilet for two full days, I am finally better. I was very thankful the stomach bug was not one that made me throw up. Baby steps and one day at a time.

I know I am not the only one who goes through tough times, whether due to cancer, surgery, COVID, or losing a loved one. All we can do is set one foot in front of the other and hope and pray the light at the end of that tunnel is getting brighter each day.

I truly feel I am finally on my way to recovery. It will take a while to get my weight back up, and my throat is still healing, so talking a lot is still a challenge. When I am down and discouraged, I read a little book my dear friend and colleague Louise (also a cancer survivor) gave me called “50 Days of Hope.” It was written for people who have been diagnosed with cancer and has 50 very inspiring and uplifting stories, along with Bible verses. And then there are the cards — goodness what a blessing and encouraging piece of paper. A good “old fashion” card in the mail can put a smile one anyone’s face!

It is said, and I think most will agree, that when one family member has been diagnosed with cancer, it’s as if the whole family has cancer. I am very fortunate, grateful and extremely thankful, that my family and friends have showered me with love, caring and support. I sure hope you can do the same for your loved ones.

Ester Hoeben Marsh is health and fitness director of JF Hurley Family YMCA and on the way to full recovery.