Real Life Laryngectomee: Geoff’s Smoking Story

When I was at secondary school in the early sixties, I remember watching those old school movies where we saw old men who could hardly breathe, who had blackened lungs from smoking.   We took little notice as we all knew  that would never happen to us!  My father smoked rollies (rolled tobacco).   My mother smoked cigarettes for as long as I remember, even though she worked in the nursing profession. In fact I remember coming home from secondary school each day and my first chore would be to pop down to the shop in the village and buy her 20 Olivier Tipped.   I can’t remember how much they were now… but only a shilling so.

I joined the Army as a boy soldier in 1964 and went through two years as a Junior Leader at Blackdown near Camberley. During training or drill sessions we used to get a Smoke Break… whether you smoked or not.   I didn’t smoke then but enjoyed those welcome breaks nevertheless!  I remember that money was scarce in those days and one cigarette would be passed around the barrack room to be puffed on by all those who smoked!   ‘Twos-up’ was a call, and ‘Last Drags’.   Then come pay day, they all had money in their pockets to buy their own again!   Cigarettes had a good trading value for some too.   ‘You can borrow one but I want three back on pay day!’

After passing out from boy’s service, my first posting was to Aden (now Yemen).    I still didn’t smoke.   Unless you were married, the social life there was zero.   The operational side was quite exciting for a young lad though.   I do remember that we were sometimes issued with some circular tins of cigarettes and / or tobacco.   These apparently were contraband seized by HM Customs & Excise and offered to the Services for free!   Although I didn’t smoke, these were good for trading and often paid for my drinks for the week, or whatever!

With the East-of-Suez policy coming into effect we withdraw from Aden in October 1967 and I returned with HQ 24th Infantry Brigade to Plymouth in Devon.   I was almost 20 and having been robbed of my teenage hood by the Borstal-like boy’s service and the barren rocks of Aden, this was my first real taste of the real adult world of the time… the Sixties and all the excitement  that had to offer!  So I made up for lost time by hitting the night spots of Plymouth.   I worked hard and played hard and loved every minute!

It was at this time that I started smoking.   It fitted with the image of a pint in one hand and a cigarette in the other, with a girl draped around your shoulder.   And of course we could even smoke in the dance halls, the night clubs and the pubs.   It was cool!   We looked cool.   We were untouchable.   Immortal… invincible!

I was posted to Germany in 1969 where cigarettes, tea, coffee, whisky and gin, and even BP petrol  were still on ration, a leftover rule from the dark days of WWII. I think the entitlement was 200 (one carton) per man which was no difficulty for smokers as they could always get the non-smokers to buy their rations and then buy from them!   This was when I started smoking heavily.   Cigarettes were still very cheap for the services abroad and it seemed a shame not to take advantage of this! I smoked Embassy for years!

Most of my 24-year Army career was spent outside of the UK which meant I was able to afford to smoke for most of the time.   Many of these postings were very stressful and a ciggie was certainly a great relief at times.   And so I continued to smoke more and more.

When I left the Army, I then took up a post with British Aerospace (now Bae Systems) in Dhahran, in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia and spent 14 or so years there.   Things were fine apart from Saddam upsetting the apple cart and invading Kuwait!   But for all that, this was a very enjoyable time, both workwise and socially.   And all the time I was smoking more and more.

When I did eventually return to the high prices of the UK I did some unpaid charity work for a while until I became bored.   Then I took up a post with Aegis Defence Systems and helped to set up a private security company in Baghdad under contract of the US Embassy.   If ever there was a place that anyone needed a cigarette… that was it!

Once again I returned to the UK and tried to settle down as a retiree.   Not easy for one who had lead a full and active life!

During the latter part of my stay in Dhahran I was admitted to hospital where I was told I had COPD[1]. But I was discharged from hospital after a week or so with no recommendation.   I also became ill in Baghdad where the American Medic advised me to take a very hot shower and inhale as much of the steam as I could.   My voice began to deteriorate in Baghdad to such an extent that at times I couldn’t talk without squeaking.   I collapsed on the flight back to UK from Baghdad, via Germany and I woke up in first class with my head in the lap of a very beautiful flight stewardess! They certainly look after you in first class! 

When I returned to Plymouth, my voice continued to deteriorate and my throat now had a pins and razor-blade feel to it.   When this happened in the Middle East, I put it down to the dry atmosphere and sandy, dusty conditions.   I was having a pint in my local pub when an ex Royal Navy medic friend of mine advised me to see the doctor.

I took his advice just before Christmas 2008.   My local GP took one look inside my throat and referred me immediately to an ENT consultant in Derriford Hospital. At that initial consultation I remember the consultant saying “You know what this is don’t you?” I nodded knowingly that I had cancer.   It turned out to be Grade 4. I had a laryngectomy in January 2009 together with a partial thyroid removal and the lymph nodes in my neck and throat.

All was well until a few months later when I had to undergo a massive 37 courses of radiotherapy accompanied with weekly chemotherapy sessions. All was well again for a while until it was realised that those sessions had caused irreversible damage to my throat by scarring the tissue inside.   Over the following four years things began to deteriorate to such an extent that I could no longer eat, drink or talk.   Fortunately, I had been fitted with a PEG Feeding Tube[2] in 2009.

Various options were tried to overcome the restriction and narrowing in my throat but all without success.   And at one stage they even thought the cancer had returned. Thankfully this was not to be… even though I heard discussions relating to palliative care! 

Eventually I was referred to the Royal Sunderland Hospital in August 2015 where I had a major operation to take tissue from the pectoral muscle in my chest and to place that in my throat.   This was a brilliant success and enabled me to eat, drink and talk after a fashion.   There are side-effects but this beats the alternative.

Did I mention that I no longer smoke?

I am eternally thankful to the medical professionals for saving my life.   I feel very silly and not a little guilty for smoking and for causing so much trouble and expense to the NHS.   I bitterly regret doing what I did but I was once invincible remember? Never once have I been reproached by anyone in the NHS for smoking.   Which is a blessing in itself!

I will suffer pain and discomfort for the rest of my life.   I will try to dissuade youngsters from smoking just to be cool, as I did.   But I don’t intend to be one of those holier-than-thou merchants who glare at smokers and treat them as lepers.

The Royal Parade in Plymouth City Centre is choc-a-bloc with buses churning out black diesel smoke at all hours of the day and yet the passengers are not allowed to smoke in the bus shelters!

It’s a funny old world but I think times are a-changing for the better.

I sincerely hope so anyway!

Written by Geoffrey N. READ



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