By Christos Panayiotides
I was raised in Famagusta. I started smoking at the tender age of 14, on the rocks on the beach near my school, an area beyond the reach of the pedonomoi (school prefects).
Smoking and the consumption of alcohol were in those days signs of emancipation and indicated a revolutionary streak amongst a small group of secondary school pupils whose performance at school was rated at the top of the range.
Initially, it was two to three cigarettes a day (if I remember correctly, the brand was Matinée and they were sold in a yellow pack). While at university in the UK, the consumption went up to 20 per day (Player’s Navy Cut, without filter). Over the years, the consumption kept increasing to reach the level of two plus packs a day. I have no doubt that what followed was caused, to a large extent, by smoking. Admittedly, hereditary factors may have contributed: my mother died of breast cancer at the age of 69 and my father of lung cancer, at the age of 86.
In the summer of 2008, we found ourselves on holiday in Cyprus (at the time we were living in Athens), and had been invited by one of my best friends to a barbeque at his home. Also present were a well known couple of medical practitioners based in Nicosia, who had just imported from the USA a state-of-the-art piece of equipment for checking the condition of the heart.
In a very friendly fashion, I found myself coming under mild pressure to go the following day for a heart check-up. I (along with another very close friend of mine who was also at the receiving end of this friendly pressure) resolved to heroically resist it and responded with a clear-cut statement to the effect that “our hearts are in mint condition and such a check-up would serve no purpose”.
Fortunately, the host had in stock in his wine cellar an exquisite red French wine, which was quickly thrown into the battle of convincing me to consent to the proposed cardiological examination. I consented, and the following day I underwent the examination and picked up the result the day after that.
The findings were unexpected.
“You were absolutely right. Your heart is, indeed, in mint condition but on top of the aortic arch, next to your heart, we spotted something, which must be urgently investigated for possible malignancy,” the specialist said.
I recollect hearing the news in a cool mood, trying to quantify the length of my remaining life (one month? Six months? One year? Longer?). Immediately, I caught myself trying to marshal in order of priority the tasks that I had to accomplish within whatever time was left.
At the time, I thought that I was lucky to have discovered the problem in the way I did and that the luck which helped me spot the problem would help me fight cancer. At the very least, I would not surrender without a fight. The last time I had such a feeling was when the reserves were mobilised in 1974.
Within a week the seriousness of the problem was confirmed, primarily by means of a biopsy of the material which was “mined” from my ailing lung. Within two weeks and following additional tests, I had lost my left lung.
I spent the evening following the operation in the intensive care unit of the Athens Medical Centre, where my other lung caught a serious infection (a fairly common phenomenon in these circumstances). What followed was a real struggle for survival, with rather poor prospects.
I remember that I very much wanted to live. In the intensive care unit I kept saying to the nurse, who was there to keep my lips moist with water, that she was very beautiful while the moaning of two older “guests” of the unit could be heard in the background. I later learned that they had died. In the course of my own struggle and in an effort to keep my fears at bay I would keep telling jokes to my doctors and draw up plans for my future.
For almost a month, I was breathing with the occasional help of an oxygen mask. But then followed the most difficult part of my treatment: chemotherapy in four double cycles, separated from each other by approximately three weeks. The first and second cycles passed with relatively little trouble and without any side-effects. The third one was difficult. The fourth cycle was a nightmare.
Chemotherapy is a chemical attack against human cells, which aims at killing cancerous cells with, unfortunately, lots of side effects. However, at no stage did I surrender. Although the mere smell of food made me want to vomit, I remember one Sunday morning, after having not slept for a single minute the previous night because of the pain, I decided to adopt an “offensive policy” towards cancer. I bought, as soon as my local butcher opened, a whole lamb liver, which I cooked myself in olive oil with spring onions and leek, and sprinkled with wine and lemon juice. As one would expect, the result of my “bravery” was to be driven to a state of desperation. However, I was not willing to yield and after a period of time, I started, slowly, to recover.
At that stage, my life expectancy (based on statistics) was relatively short. So, my first concern was to settle pending professional and financial matters, including interrupting my professional career in Athens.
Then, thanks to two very good friends, I identified the opportunity of re-launching my career, aged 63, in Cyprus. I immediately grabbed the chance, thinking that this would be the best way of rejuvenating myself – both mentally and physically. In less than six months I had re-invented the intensive work tempo, which I was always fond of. For me, work was both a way of getting rid of excess energy and a source of energy.
At the beginning, I was monitoring my progress by means of various blood tests and CT/MRI scans (initially every three months and later every six months). This is how a relapse was spotted in 2011. The cancerous cells, which were spotted in a lymphatic gland, in the area of the original problem, were bombarded with an impressive computer-guided piece of machinery, known as the “cyber-knife”. This treatment was followed by four double cycles of chemotherapy. At that stage, I lost my hair for the first time. I saw it as a novelty, giving a new dimension to my personality.
Since then, I have not been doing badly. Although the possibility of the problem reappearing hangs over my head, it does not frighten me. On the contrary, it helps me enjoy life to a greater extent because it makes me realise that wasting life by chasing silly problems is a luxury I cannot afford.
I must admit that in fighting cancer I was immensely helped by my Greek doctors who, armed with their technical competence and a strong sense of a duty of care, stood by my side and did an outstanding job. I also appreciated the help I received from the medical fund of the Greek Institute of Certified Public Accountants. Not only did they cover a big part of the financial cost of my health adventure, but they did it with a smile and with courtesy. My friends and my children helped me tremendously by always having the right combination of words to boost my morale. But, more than anybody else, I was helped by my wife, who made it absolutely clear that she wanted me to live, that my departure would have been a big loss for her. She did more than simply stand by my side. I have the impression that she felt the pain as much as I did, and, perhaps, even more so.
I need to mention that I stopped smoking in 2008. However, I promised myself that I would go back to this terrible addiction in 2035, the year I hit 90!
Please remember that fighting cancer becomes a much tougher task if the financial resources are lacking. If you can, please give generously to the Cyprus Anti-Cancer Society (tel: 22446222)
Christos Panayiotides is a retired certified public accountant and a regular contributor to the Cyprus Mail