James Valentine is about to have surgery to remove his oesophagus. He’s both hopeful and terrified


So, there’s something I have to tell you.

I’ve used that phrase a lot recently. To my 96-year-old mother, to an audience at a gig, to people I’ve never met.

Due to circumstance, I have to tell them the “something”. I’ve become more adept at it and have found that it’s best to reveal the ending first.

The end of the story is I’m going to be fine. 

The beginning is I have cancer. If you open with that, no-one ever believes you’re going to be fine. Cancer is a trigger word for just about everyone because your own body turning against you is a horrible thing and, for many, the course of the disease is ghastly, and for many it’s fatal.

That’s why my cancer so far has been kind of odd.

I’ve been fine. Right now, I’m completely fine.

Tom’s party and a massaman curry

It really began back in December, at Tom’s party. My friend Tom has been celebrating his 40th birthday every few years for quite a while now and it’s a good party. But, as usual, the bar was free and there was no food.

At about 9:30pm, three takeaway containers of Thai food turned up. I’m starving, and I snuffle down massaman beef like a dog woofing up Pal.

A few minutes later, I’m choking and retching. Bad look at the party.

My wife, Joanne, watches this and says, “That’s not good,” and she doesn’t just mean my eating habits. She’s referring to me hanging onto a parking pole outside the pub trying to swallow. She’s not a doctor, but is a better doctor than most, and so she refers me to her sister’s endoscopy clinic to get a gastroscopy.

Man wearing headphones in ABC radio studio sitting in front of microphone.

James Valentine is the presenter of Afternoons on ABC Radio Sydney.(ABC Radio Sydney: Declan Bowring)

Everyone’s thinking it’s an old man reflux kind of condition. I have a fun conversation with the anaesthetist about Taylor Swift and the next thing I know my eyes are opening and across the room I can see my wife, my son, my sister-in-law, and the gastro doctor.

The doctor comes over.

“It’s bad. You’ve got a 4-centimetre tumour where your oesophagus meets your stomach.”

Not expecting that. Can’t take it in.

I’m post a general anaesthetic, so I head home. It’s early evening, I’ve got to get up and do breakfast radio in the morning, so I head to bed and fall straight to sleep.

I get up at 3:45am. As I’m driving to work, it’s like I start to remember a dream. It doesn’t quite make sense. After the radio shift, I ring Joanne and say, “This might sound like a stupid question, but I have cancer, right?”

Everyone’s cancer is different

Immediately it was meetings with oncologists, radiologists, and surgeons and, in early January, I started five weeks of chemotherapy and radiation. (For reasons that must be obvious, I don’t like to use the more common term — radiotherapy.)

And this is where my cancer and treatment differ from many others.

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I got chemo and radiation straight off, but only a mild dose designed to shrink the tumour and clean out the body before surgery. I got tired from the radiation, the chemo made me feel like my whole body had been sluiced through with liquid aluminium foil but I could go to work, do the radio, and I even did a gig or two playing saxophone.

Much to the annoyance of my bald brothers, my hair didn’t fall out.

A few weeks after the treatment finished, I was fine again.

And so that’s what I mean, I’m fine. I’ve sat next to people who are having multiple chemo sessions that wipe them out for days and people who are experiencing intense pain and burning from their radiation treatment.

That’s not me. And that’s the only universal I can draw from this; everyone’s cancer is different and everyone will react to treatment in their own way.

I won’t be the same 

In a few weeks, I will undergo surgery, which is the main treatment for my oesophageal cancer. The surgery will remove my entire oesophagus and then stretch my stomach up and attach it to my throat. Marvellous what they can do these days.

After that, I’m very likely to feel like absolute crap for quite some time. It is likely I will recover, although that may take some months. I will be able to eat, but small amounts at a time. I will never woof down massaman beef again and I think we’re all glad about that.

Two men on stage with one playing the saxophone and one on a bass violin

James Valentine on saxophone (right) with Peter Kohloff on bass.(Supplied: James Valentine)

I thought about telling the ABC Radio Sydney audience before this time but I decided I’d only just come back to Afternoons. It’s generally a jolly show, so let’s have a good time there for a few months rather than shade that whole time with my disease.

So, I’ll be gone for a while. Probably two or three months. I’m going to make sure I’m fully recovered and my stomach is going to stay attached to my neck before I attempt broadcasting again. Wouldn’t want it to come loose mid-show.

Cancer is confronting and of course I’m equal parts hopeful and terrified.

I hope I’ll be OK, but I also know that I won’t be the same. The person writing this is already different to the person who went off in December to Tom’s party. Lord knows what I’ll be like a few months from now. I think I’ll be fine. That’s my ending. But right now, I’m still at the beginning.

James Valentine is the presenter of Afternoons on ABC Radio Sydney. Thursday is his last show for about three months as he takes time off to recover from surgery.

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