I first came to The Royal Marsden as a patient 16 years ago. I’m now a mentor for laryngectomy patients, using my cancer journey to help others
I was diagnosed with laryngeal cancer (cancer of the voice box) in 2000 and came to The Royal Marsden for radiotherapy. Shortly afterwards, a lump the size of a tennis ball appeared on my neck, so this was removed.
But in 2005, I was having trouble breathing and needed an emergency tracheotomy. The samples taken from my neck identified an aggressive form of cancer, and I was told that my best option was a laryngectomy – surgery to remove my voice box. I also needed a stoma, which is a permanent hole at the base of my neck, to enable me to breathe. I was devastated.
I will never forget the patient mentor who came to see me with the speech therapist before my operation. They were so supportive and those early conversations really helped me to deal with what was to come. I was focused on getting myself back to my job at Amec Rail as a training consultant, and felt like the cancer was an inconvenience in my life.
After the operation, my speech therapist taught me how to breathe correctly and to talk by covering the stoma. My family and colleagues were very supportive and I went back to work. Although life certainly changed, wearing a tie was the only thing I couldn’t manage.
Having a stoma in your neck is rare and people do ask questions, particularly my eight puzzled grandchildren. But I’m open and honest about it. I don’t wear a scarf to hide it; it’s part of me. I change the base plate around my stoma myself every two days and it’s become like changing a plaster.
Talking to new patients is hugely rewarding and I answer their questions about life afterwards honestly. If patients have information at the start of their journey, they feel more empowered about what is happening to them. Sadly, the effects of this type of cancer are long-lasting, so it’s vital to have support. Dedicating my time to helping Royal Marsden patients and staff is my way of giving something back.
Although life certainly changed after my operation, wearing a tie was the only thing I couldn’t manage
Kate Ashforth, Joint Head of Speech and Language Therapy, says:
“Derrick has been a wonderful help to the Speech and Language Therapy Department’s laryngectomies. Laryngectomy surgery is life-changing as it involves loss of the voice and breathing ia a stoma. We meet all of our patients before their surgery to explain how they can communicate following their operation.
“But it is through meeting Derrick that they really understand how the surgery will affect them. Derrick has also taken part in training programmes for nurses caring for laryngectomy patients, which has given them the practical experience they need. Meeting someone as positive and honest as Derrick is vital for our patients, as they can see that he is thriving and enjoying retirement with his family."