Man’s horror diagnosis at age 22
WHEN Abhishek Malik was diagnosed with tongue cancer at just 22 years old, doctors were stumped.
"I have no history of smoking or cancer in the family, so it was pretty much out of the blue," the now 25-year-old from Western Sydney said.
A few weeks earlier he had noticed a small sore on his tongue, where he thought he might have bitten himself. But when it failed to heal, he decided to get a second opinion.
"(A specialist doctor) got some scans done. They were fine, nothing wrong. But he said look we'll do a biopsy and when the biopsy came out it showed a tumour," he said.
Mr Malik said the diagnosis felt like being dealt a "bad luck card". Tongue cancer is rare in young adults and most often caused by heavy smoking and drinking.
But he was lucky doctors caught the cancer in its early stages.
"It was pretty aggressive … I was lucky I went to the specialist when I did because in that time the tumour had almost doubled in size," he said.
SURGERY, RECOVERY AND A TWO-TONED TONGUE
To remove the tumour, surgeons had to take out a third of Mr Malik's tongue and rebuild it with skin from his hip.
This would save his ability to swallow and talk after surgery, but left him with a unique two-toned tongue - half pink and half brown.
"They also cleared the right side of my neck. They cleared that of all the lymph nodes, so I've got a scar on my neck and on my hip," he said.
Mr Malik's surgery was followed by weeks of radiotherapy to ensure the cancer wouldn't return, and he said it was months before he was able to feel like himself again.
"The radio sort of hits you really slowly, so … I was out of the frying pan into the fire," he said.
"In the process I lost my taste, saliva, and I dropped about five to six kilos. I had a feeding tube that went straight into my stomach."
A NEW CHALLENGE
It was during that difficult recovery period that the idea to swim across the English Channel - the body of water that separates the United Kingdom from France - was born.
Mr Malik had never been more than an average swimmer at school, but had read about cancer survivors going on to achieve great things and wanted an adventurous goal of his own.
"I had a lot of time to think when I had treatment because you don't really do much else. You just go to hospital for an hour or two, come home and do the same thing the next day," he said.
"Once I recovered I thought if I'm dreaming about those things, and I've made it through such a big thing that came out of nowhere, why not give that stuff crack."
He began training last year, swimming in Melbourne and Sydney during winter to prepare for the chilly waters, and arrived in London earlier this month to tackle the 16-hour, 32km swim.
The water in the channel can often drop to around 14 degrees Celsius in August and swimmers must sometimes slather themselves in fat to keep warm.
"I use lanolin and I mix that with Vaseline and just slop it on everywhere. It helps with the cold and it helps with chafing too," he said.
GIVING BACK TO THOSE WHO GOT HIM THROUGH
Mr Malik thanks his friends and family for being able to stay so positive during his cancer journey.
"It was tough - it was really, really hard, but I tried to be as positive as I could," he said.
But it was the understated support of CanTeen, a charity for young people impacted by cancer, that helped him navigate the tough ins and outs of his treatment.
"I started volunteering with them after I recovered, so when it came to booking this swim I wanted to do it with the organisation that helped me through," he said.
Mr Malik is due to swim across the English Channel this week and has raised more than $18,000 for CanTeen so far.