We’re continuing our interview series ‘Pieces of the Continent’ with Gary Tanner. Gary was first diagnosed with throat cancer in 1998. However, he hasn’t let his disease stop him from being very vocal in the pursuit of gender neutral vaccination. He was recently interviewed on the BBC alongside NOMAN is an Island on the day the UK announced they would begin vaccinating boys.
Tell us a bit about yourself – name, age, job, family?
I’m Gary Tanner, 66 and I’ve been married to Theresa since 2004, although we’ve been together since 1998. We met just before my first cancer diagnosis whilst I was working in finance for a large insurance company which specialised, ironically, in critical care. My step-daughter, Inez, has blessed us with two gorgeous little girls who I am proud to call my granddaughters. I also have daughters from a previous marriage and several more grandchildren. Photography is my passion and I use it to fulfill my role as a registered volunteer with Macmillan Cancer Support.
What is your story of being diagnosed?
In mid-1998 a lump which had developed in my neck was found to be malignant. At the age of 47, doing well at work and in the first weeks of a new relationship I was gobsmacked. But the Royal Marsden took over and after having a neck dissection they decided I needed no chemotherapy or other treatment. However, the team there were never convinced that the glands they’d removed constituted a primary cancer but try as they might they could find no trace of a primary tumour. In fact, I had to wait almost 15 years for that to make its presence felt and in February 2013, after many failed attempts, an oncologist at my local hospital in Somerset finally located a large growth at the base of my tongue. Biopsies and scans then followed and it was proven to be a HPV-related T4 N2b MX grade 2 squamous carcinoma of the left tongue base. Which was why, for several months preceding diagnosis, I had been barely able to swallow a glass of water, let alone ingest solid food.
How did you feel when you got your diagnosis?
My memory is of sitting in a room at Musgrove Park Hospital with my oncologist, my specialist head and neck nurse, a dietician and a speech therapist, whilst being informed that my cancer may have been developing and mutating for the past twenty years following close contact or oral sex with a woman who had genital warts or herpes. I was 63, unexceptional in every way and could feel myself blush and squirm with embarrassment. And then the shock set in.
What was treatment like?
My treatment plan was developed, jointly, by my oncologist and a consultant radiographer. They told me it was a plan aimed at keeping me alive – but that it might fail. I had a PIC line inserted into my upper arm, so that I could pump the chemotherapy cocktail into myself seven days a week, and also had a stomach RIG fitted so that I could inject liquid nutrition directly into my tummy. That was the only way I could build myself up to be strong enough to withstand the course of radical chemoradiation. Next I had to have several teeth removed so that the radiotherapy could be properly targeted and then they moulded my radiotherapy mask which had to fit my head and shoulders for the duration of treatment. I was warned of all the possible side effects and I had to endure every one of them, up until the point where I had to be hospitalised and given blood transfusions in order to stay alive long enough to finish the course. It was grueling, terrifying, painful and emotionally disastrous for my wife and family to watch.
What has the impact of the cancer been on your life?
The 2013 treatment left me partially paralysed down my left side. I had a hernia from being pinned rigid to the radiotherapy couch and the top vertebra in my spine became arthritic. My lungs were damaged and I had to have a stent inserted into my aorta as radiotherapy seems to have damaged my heart slightly, as well. And then, in 2016, the cancer was back. I couldn’t have any more radiotherapy and my team in Somerset didn’t believe they could operate. In March 2016 I was given a terminal prognosis and the plan was to give me palliative care. This was just about the last straw for my wife and I and we broke down at that point.
How do you feel since being in remission?
While I am still around, I do not see myself as being in remission. In May 2016 a surgeon of exceptional skill working, then, out of the Freeman Hospital in Newcastle agreed to take my case and attempt to robotically remove the tumour which had reappeared at the back of my tongue. However, by the time I arrived at the Freeman, in July 2016 it was obvious that something else was going on because my voice had almost disappeared. On 19th July I underwent 13 hours of surgery during which a full laryngectomy was performed before a team of specialist plastic surgeons stepped in to rebuild my oesophagus and airway using tissue taken from my thigh. When I woke up, my neck was a patchwork quilt held together by giant staples. I had to write notes to people for 7 months while everything healed up well enough for the surgeons to consider it safe to fit me with a prosthetic speech valve. So now I look like Frankenstein’s monster and sound like R2D2 but the grandkids find it highly amusing. And because I know my immune system has no ability to fight off HPV, I have resigned myself to the fact that I am living with cancer and that it could rear its ugly head again at any time.
Q.What would you say to people who oppose gender neutral vaccination against HPV?
The HPV vaccine does not contain any live viruses and cannot cause HPV infection. It contains individual proteins from four types of HPV virus, which produce an immune response. If any parent who has read my story can then deny their son or daughter the two injections which are required they really need to have a rethink. The vaccination reduces the risk of HPV related cancers by 80% and possibly greater. The results from countries who already vaccinate their children are showing a dramatic decline in incidence.
But all I really want to say is “Please, please don’t make a decision which could mean that, at some point in their future, your child will suffer as I have, or die before he or she sees their own children grow up, or have to live with a partner who is permanently terrified that they are going to lose the love of their life to a premature and grotesque death, when two, very safe, very quick, tiny little jabs in the arm can prevent such an outcome. And, if you still need further reassurance, ask NOMAN or the good folk at HPV Action to put you in touch with us and we’ll give you the full, unexpurgated story of how this cancer blights lives.”