“My Voice” by Nick Smart

Nick Smart - 'Survivor'

I don’t feel I can take much, if any, credit for my survivor status. I don’t feel I won a battle with cancer. I don’t really feel that I fought a battle with cancer; a battle did take place, but it was fought on my behalf by others with me as a passive beneficiary. The others are the real heroes of the story. To be a hero, you have to have options. You have to choose between a safe unadventurous path and a dangerous but noble path. You have to be faced with the option of jumping in the lake to save the child or watching helplessly from the bank. No-one will blame you if you say “there was nothing I could do”, but if you jump in and try to save the day, then – successful or not – you’re a hero.

That’s why the real heroes of my survival are the doctors, nurses and researchers who designed, managed and administered the life-saving treatment, and the family and friends who sustained me through it. Whereas I had no choice about contracting cancer, and no real option other than to endure the treatment, the medics made a conscious decision to follow a career which led to my cure. Likewise, my friends could choose between picking up the phone and saying, “if there’s anything I can do, just say”, or doing nothing. No can blame those who felt there was nothing they could do, and therefore didn’t offer, but those who made contact are heroes. Likewise my family.

A seminal point in my cure took place in 1974, when I was seven years old. My cancer was diagnosed in 2001, but the breakthrough which lead to the fantastic cure rate that patient of testicular cancer now enjoy took place when I was learning my six times table and reading about the adventures of Dick & Dora.  At Indiana University, Indiana – thousands of miles from my home in the South West of England – a young oncologist called Lawrence Einhorn was treating John Cleland, a patient with testicular cancer. His disease was progressing and the situation looked hopeless. Testicular cancer was a brutal killer. The overall cure rate was around 10%, and there was almost no hope for patients with metastatic disease. Cleland asked if there was anything else that they could try, and Dr Einhorn agreed to administer an experimental drug called Cisplatin. The result was, in the words of Dr Einhorn, “spectacular”. Cleland survived and is alive today, and the outlook for patients with testicular cancer is transformed. The survival rate has soared to almost 95%. Dr Einhorn is a hero.

David Dickerson is another hero. He is a urologist at my local hospital, and he positively diagnosed my cancer with an hour of our meeting and then removed my cancerous testicle; so is John Graham, the oncologist who detected my relapse and prescribed the chemo which saved my life. So are Emma Bryant, and the other oncological nurses who administered the chemo.

When I first took my lumpy testicle to my GP, I was examined and told that I had nothing to worry about. That’s where the heroism of my wife and my mum begins. It was they who would not allow me to leave the matter, and persuaded me to get the ultrasound that I needed – without that I would have waited another twelve weeks for my “non-urgent” scan. I dread to think what the result would have been.

So I have been the subject of a mighty battle, and many have distinguished themselves in the battle. Their only prize is that I get to live. Although I had no option other than passively allow my personal army to fight the battle for me, I am now a survivor, and therefore I now have options. With options come possibilities. One can choose to stand on the bank, or to jump in the water.

The challenge for a cancer survivor is to be worthy of the gift that he is given, to be a worthy beneficiary of the battle that others have fought on their behalf. One way to do that is to make something of your life. Before my illness I rarely chose a path for myself. Indeed I rarely made any decisions about the direction of my life, but preferred to allow life to simply happen to me. That has changed. Following my illness, I began to make decisions about my future. I went to university and gained a degree in English, and loved it so much that I stayed on an extra year to get a Master’s degree, which I am very proud of. Also, I try to do as much as I can to give something back to the cancer community by helping and sharing my experience with people who are about to go through what I have been through, and I have taken part in fund-raising events – a truly inspiring experience.

Recently I achieved my dream of becoming a teacher, which was the first goal that I set for myself when I took stock of my life after my recovery. I will never forget delivering a lesson about biographical writing to a small class of fourteen year olds who were not accustomed to listening to me. A PowerPoint showing a selection of possible heroes on whom they could base their writing really captured their attention. My normally noisy and inattentive pupils were perfectly silent as I showed them a number of candidates. Among the pictures of Mandela, Kennedy, pop stars and sportsmen I also included pictures of a surgeon, Dr Einhorn and my personal hero, Mike Peters, singer with The Alarm and founder of the Love Hope Strength Foundation.

Our heroes inspire us to action. They spur us on to be worthy of the gifts that we have been given, and they can be the yardstick against which we judge our own actions. More than anything else, they show us that heroism is about choosing the riskier but nobler option.

To me, survivorship is about striving to be worthy of the battle that others have fought on our behalf.

My name is Nick, and I am a survivor.