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James Parkin | I Wanted To Be Able To Smile at My Daughter On The Outside, Not Just On The Inside

My name is James Parkin. I’m 42 and live near Basingstoke in Hampshire, England. I’ve been singing since I was 8 and playing guitar since I was 15. I was rubbish at it until I got divorced at 35 and suddenly had more time on my hands. I released two albums of cover versions in 2011 and 2015 respectively and in January 2016 I promised myself I would write one song per month and make my first original album by the end of the year. However two weeks later I was diagnosed with a particularly aggressive cancer of the parotid gland. It had been there for at least 18 months. Of course I’d noticed the lump and the pain (particularly when it took hold of my nerves – that really hurt; excruciating at times). But I kept getting inconclusive results, so by the time I got a conclusive result it was a bit of a mess in there and the tumour had wrapped itself around my nerves.

James Parkin

When the surgeons removed the tumour, they also severed my facial nerves on the right side of my face leaving me paralysed on that side of my face. That was the just the start of my road to something resembling recovery. Next came radiotherapy, which caused a complete loss of taste buds, not to mention wearing a horrible mask that pinned me to the table whilst they blasted me with radiation for 10 minutes a day for a couple of months. Next, I had a nerve graft to try and get movement back to my face. I couldn’t smile. I missed not being able to smile more than anything. People smile at me all the time – I just grimace back at them. I wanted to be able to smile at my daughter on the outside, not just on the inside. They took a nerve from my thigh and put it into my face, complete with its own blood supply from my groin. That operation took 14 hours. It didn’t work first time round and I haemorrhaged, so the nurses applied leeches to my face to try and control the blood flow for a couple of days. That didn’t work so they re-did the operation. Except they had to wake me up just after putting me under before they could restart it because my throat was so swollen from 14 hours of tube being down it the previous day, it meant they couldn’t get a resuscitation tube down it. So, they waited another 24 hours and then re-did the nerve graft. I was then in intensive care for about a week. As if things couldn't get any worse, when I woke up Donald Trump was President! Its amazing how weak I became from those days asleep in intensive care. Sleep was almost impossible as I had a bed that kept moving to help me with my bed sores which had developed from the long operations. The food was really really bad. After about 10 days I was able to go home. I had a massive lump of fat on the side of my face keeping the nerve warm. I looked like the elephant man. I cried when I saw it. Cried harder than I’ve ever cried. I went in to look better and came out looking much worse. I wore a scarf 24 hours a day for three months to help keep the nerve warm but also to hide my embarrassment. I was just glad it was winter! I then had a platinum chain put into my eyelid to help me close it and a sling put under my eye to help keep it the same height as my other eye. I’ve had quite a bit of Botox. But so far, nothing has made much difference (except I have lots of scars). Still no movement. Still no smile.

Throughout this time I kept writing songs. Some of the songs came to me in my dreams. I’d wake up at stupid o clock in the morning with a melody and/or some lyrics in my head. I’d be convinced for a few minutes the song was already invented, but they never were – so I would record the melody or lyrics on my phone and then head back to sleep. Some songs were directly about what I was going through with the operation (a song called ‘My Cure’). This song is being used by Cancer Research UK as part of their upcoming 'Stand Up to Cancer'campaign. Another song was about psychological depression (‘A later not to miss’) but taking note from the Beatles 'Help', I recorded it as an uptempo number to hide the misery that lay within. I was in a relationship which was rocky prior to and during the above, so quite a few love stories about falling in love, being in love, breaking up.

I also wrote a lullaby for my young daughter (named 'Lullabye'). Three of the songs were co-written at a song writing retreat with Scandinavian girls. They are very pretty (the songs and the girls). With their involvement, it made sense to record the album in Ascot and Malmo in Sweden in June, July of 2017. One of the girls (Maria Skanselid) plays Cello on 6 of the songs. Cello just gives each track a bit of class - highly recommended! I released the album in August 2017. In the first few days of release I went from 4,000 to 40,000+ new followers on Facebook thanks to a bit of promotion and presumably some songs and a story that resonates. I'm happy with what we produced. Could it have been slicker if i'd spent tens of thousands - of course, but I spent less than £1,000 and captured what I wanted to capture. A moment in time, part of my journey.

For me, Cancer and facial palsy was not the end of a dream – My songs start in my dreams and I think my musical dream is nearer its beginning than its end. That journey continues and I'm playing live at least once a week and starting to write more songs. 'My Cure' may not have actually been My Cure, but it was a damn good therapy!


Interview with BBC:

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