Tongue

By Liz R.

Cancer. And we're not talking star signs here.


The consultant is 'rather surprised'. I don't fit the profile for oral carcinoma – non-smoking, barely-drinking, only mildly-ageing female.


They'll be cutting a large triangle out of the front of my tongue and sewing the two sides together. Like a dart, I think. My tongue will swell up and it will be difficult to eat for a while. The dietician is on holiday so no one is around to tell me what to make for afterwards. I am assured by the specialist cancer nurse that the hospital food is excellent and they are very used to catering for vegetarians with balloons for tongues.


The hospital food sucks. Which is all I can do now, along two very narrow channels that open up at the back of my teeth. Clench your jaw and you'll feel them with your fingers. Even swallowing water is hard work and makes a hissing sound like I'm pretending to sample expensive wine.


The only thing on the menu I can tick is cauliflower soup. Beige gloop with lumps that silt up under my tongue like pebbles in a rock pool. I swill them out under a running tap where they clog up the spokes of the sink hole.


They want me to take painkillers but trying to get them down hurts more than the pain they're meant to kill. Antibiotics are mandatory on discharge – no, not available in liquid form. Dubious looks when I ask if it's OK to grind them up – very bitter.


They're not joking. I wash the taste away with the homemade ice-cream that's been waiting in the freezer - high-calorie coconut milk and sucrose-free because cancer loves to eat sugar apparently. Turns out citrus flavours were a bad idea – chocolate and vanilla slide glacier-like down the swollen scabby mass that passes for my tongue while lemon feels as if it's basted in battery acid.


The blender has never seen so much action. I long for the not-knowingness of babyhood, sick of the textureless monotony of purées for every meal and the teeny rubber spoon that doesn't hurt too much when I jab my tongue. Eating from a half-filled mug helps me to forget the large white plates in the cupboard which denote my normal portion size.


The thrilling discovery that eating hot with cold can substitute for variety leads to some weird combinations. Yogurt-with-everything becomes a staple. It's only been weeks but the boredom still builds. I read on forums of people who have been on purées – or worse, tube-fed – for years and weep for them and what could have been for me. Guilt lingers.


My body behaves. It's as if it knows there's no point in telling me I'm hungry so I'm not. The soft folds of early middle-age flab shrink a bit. I'm delighted.


I speak with a lithp. The registrar says my speech 'should improve' in a tone of voice that suggests he doubts it actually will. 'S's scare me and I can never see them coming in time to change verbal tack. People say they're not that bad but they sound thick and wet in my head. My credit card gets stopped for some reason and I have to ring a call centre and dictate my name, my address, my 16-digit number with lots of thixes and thevens in it. The man understands me first time. I am elated.


As the swelling subsides, the new shape of my tongue emerges – short and fat with a peak in the middle where the dart ends. It tingles constantly as if tiny electrodes are attached to the end. I'm told this will be permanent and it is.


Hunger grows. My tongue assumes an identity of its own. Not ready, it says when I try to eat some mashed beans. “What the hell was that?” It demands when half a peppercorn gets stuck in its long central groove and I have to pick it out. Nae chance, it instantly dismisses when I contemplate cake.


But the hunger isn't going anywhere. Enough of the calories, it wants volume now. Tongue comes up with new objections – I'm healing – sending deep aches along its sides as if finding a new point of balance. Saliva whirls about aimlessly when I channel flick onto food programmes and has to be swallowed down, Pavlov's dog style, without reward.


Fantasy meals become increasingly elaborate with extra courses lobbed in, just in case. My Death Row last supper is constantly reworked and perfected. Cooking smells from the pizza takeaway downstairs drift up to taunt me.


I wake up one morning, ravenous. Tongue senses a shift and quivers nervously. “How about some more avocado purée?” it offers pathetically.


NO.


OK, if you just hang on a bit, we can organise some mashed potato or maybe even some pasta?


NOT WAITING.


Cheese omelette?


NO. OATCAKE.


Tongue goes all eighties tennis player on me and whines, “You cannot be serious. There'll be sharp bits, it'll hurt, it'll never go down.”


OATCAKE NOW.


I move, as if pushed from behind, to the kitchen. Tear off the cardboard flap and rip open the cellophane wrapper. Slide one out and break it in half. Place it on my tongue like I'm taking Communion. Close my teeth over it and crunch. For the first time in ages my jaws properly meet, unhindered by the squelch of tongue which has been getting there first. It's caked in a suspension of oats and mucus now but I swallow. I swallow.


I'm back, though to a different place. Infinite nourishment beckons.


Keywords: 
vegetarian, hunger, healing, difficult times, illness