A family affair: `How much more can my son take?'

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The Independent Culture
Martin Vujovich was diagnosed with testicular cancer when he was 15. During the operation to have his testicle removed, it was discovered that the cancer had spread. Martin is now 18 and working as a chef. His mother, Chris Vujovich, 45, is a social worker at an old people's home. She has two other sons, Mark, 22, and Peter, 20. Chris is divorced from their father and they all live in Exton, near Manchester

Martin

Before I was diagnosed with testicular cancer, I had been having bad pains near my appendix. When it got really bad, my mum got out the emergency doctor. When we went to the GP, he gave me a good examination and he told me I had an enlarged testicle.

To be honest I didn't even know that you could have testicular cancer. I was dreading the doctors having to examine me, you know, down there.

My mum and me were sent to a specialist immediately. He gave me an ultra- sound scan, and afterwards he said, "I'm sorry. It's the worst case scenario, you've got cancer." I was gob-smacked. I had to get out of that room. I thought I was going to die. We ran out of the hospital as fast as we could, crying. When we got home, we sat on the couch and hugged each other and cried.

We rang my dad and my brothers who came out of work so I could tell them myself. Later that afternoon, I went up to school and told my teachers and my friends. I wanted to tell them I had cancer myself. That night I went to a club with my friends and brothers and I got drunk.

I didn't want to have my testicle out but I knew I had to stay alive. Just before the operation I went to the sperm bank. The nurse gave me a plastic cup and pointed to the room. "Just go and do it," she said. It was just like you see in films.

My mum was sitting waiting outside the room which was embarrassing, but I knew I had to do it if I wanted to have children.

During the operation they discovered that the cancer had spread to my lungs and my lymph nodes. I told Mum that this had all got too much for me. I didn't want to know if it had got to my liver.

My mum gave up her job to stay with me in hospital. I don't think I could have done it without her. Chemotherapy was terrible. I'd stay in hospital all week then go home at weekends. I lost my hair; I was very sick, and I got very tired.

My mum was there all the time, and just having her there was really important for me. We talked and played Scrabble, and we got into a routine. Certainly we had the kind of conversations that I never imagined we'd have, about what might happen. We became very close.

Towards Christmas they did another major operation to remove two tumours, but during the operation they discovered that I had another tumour behind my bowel. Now I've lost a testicle, bits of my abdomen and a wedge in my lungs.

Having cancer has changed everything. Before I had cancer, I was just a 15-year-old boy who was interested in girls and playing football. I think cancer has made me mature quickly. It has changed the relationship between me and my mum. But in my eyes, she got too over-protective. She'd say silly things to me like, "Keep warm and put on a jumper," as if I was a two-year-old.

I felt I wanted to get out of my mum's house because it reminds me of the cancer. In my bedroom in my mum's house I'd lie awake for countless nights just thinking about what was going to happen to me. I told her I wanted to go and live at my dad's house and she she was very upset. I got the feeling that she thought I was ungrateful after all she'd done for me. I explained to her it was just that the house reminded me too much of my cancer. Now I'm living at my dad's house. I'm still wary that the cancer may flare up again. That will never stop being in my mind, but I'm trying to live with it and I'm going to see my mum every night.

Chris

At 15, Martin was a real teenage boy: he was popular, handsome and into every kind of sport. I've always been very close to all my boys. If one of them had a problem, they'd wait until I was in the bath on my own, then they'd come in and tell me. In May 1997, Martin and Peter came on holiday with me to Corfu but Martin was having these niggling pains. When we got back home we went to the GP who immediately sent us to see a specialist. Then I knew it was something serious.

After the scan we were sitting in the clinic waiting to hear, and Martin said to me: "What does oncology mean?" I said: "I've no idea."

As a family we'd had no dealings with cancer. The specialist told us that Martin had cancer and he would have to lose his testicle. "Can I still have children?" Martin asked. My heart stopped. But the way this specialist was telling us, it was as if Martin's cancer wasn't very important. He couldn't see that he was destroying Martin's world and my world. We both ran out of the hospital, crying. When we came home, we were both quite stunned. "What do we do, Mum?" Martin asked me. "I really don't know," I said. His dad and brothers came home and we all had a cry. Martin said he had to go into school and I understood exactly what he was feeling.

Before his operation, he was told to go to the sperm bank. I ask you, what 15-year-old goes to a sperm bank? Martin had been given a special nurse, Claire, who was wonderful. "Where are you going?" asked Claire. "You know!" said Martin. "No, you've been to that many hospitals I've forgotten your itinerary," said Claire.

"I'm going to have a posh wank!" said Martin. When he came back he said, "Claire!"

"What?" she replied. "Seven bottles!" he said. I was so proud because he did his best to laugh the whole way through his treatment. After the operation he had the chemotherapy. I'd think `how much more can he take?' If I could have gone through that for him, God, would I!

It was very hard for Martin's brothers. Mark took it very hard. He thought Martin was going to die. One night he was so upset he and his girlfriend got into my bed and we talked all night. Peter wouldn't talk about it unless he had to.

Martin seemed to handle it all very well. I had given up work so I could stay in hospital with him. We sat and played Scrabble and we held hands and talked. He said: "Do you think I'm going to die?"

I said: "No." He said: "If I do die, I want you to do it properly and I want my friends there."

After the operation when they discovered that the cancer had spread, he said: "Mum, I don't want to know any more." I was frightened and worried. It was bad enough for a 15-year-old losing his testicle, but his liver ... At one point, I thought he was going to die.

The next operation was a very long and difficult one. We had a laugh with him putting on the surgical stockings but once he had gone through the doors of the operating theatre there was nothing I could do. I paced around for five hours but the operation went on for another four. They'd found another tumour behind his bowel. When he came out he had a scar with 96 staples straight up his side. He looked like death.

Our relationship has changed a lot. After all, a 15-year-old doesn't spend 24 hours a day with his mum. Nor do you expect to talk about the prospect of him dying. I became quite sensitive to his moods.

Martin has lived with me since I was divorced. But one night he said to me: "I need to tell you something. I need to go and live with my dad." I was very, very hurt. We left it for a couple of days then we went out for a drink. He said to me, "I keep thinking about what I'd have done if I hadn't had cancer. My life has changed and I have no control over anything any more, but I can control where I live. I love you but I want to go and live with my dad."

I do understand that. I've got to. I've railed against how unfair it is. Why my son? But I'm so proud of him. He's begun talking at schools. One school was quite rough and the kids were giving him a hard time. "I'm telling you boys, examine your balls," he said and he whipped his shirt off and showed his scar.

He's not in remission, he's still got a tumour, but he's getting on with his life and doing the normal things. When I go to bed at night it's the last thought on my mind and my first in the morning, and I worry. I do worry.

`Embarrassing Illnesses' will run every Tuesday at 8.30pm on Channel 4, until 21 December

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