BAD GODESBERG Peter Schilling contracted oral cancer in 2014. As a result he lost part of his jaw. He leads a self-help group at the university clinic in Bonn.
Peter Schilling is being served an espresso in the café overlooking the Schauspielhaus. "Beautiful here on this sunny day in the city," says his wife Gisa Briesemeister-Schilling, who sits next to him. Schilling carefully lifts the cup and holds a cloth napkin under his face with the other hand. At a next table, a few guests curiously look over to the man with the cap. "I am used to that. But it's no problem," Schilling says shrugging his shoulders as he dabs his mouth. In the case of the Godesberg man, born in 1950, the doctors diagnosed him with floor-of-mouth cancer 2014. They had to surgically remove half of his tongue and parts of his lower jaw. They filled the jaw area with tissue from the breast. "Since then, I've looked the way I look," explains Schilling dryly. And then he adds with a smile. "Since I look the way I do, women have been turning around to look at me more often.“
The guests at the next table have long since turned their backs again. Gisa Briesemeister-Schilling is twisting her cappuccino cup in her hands. "Many people with this type of cancer don't go out anymore, hide away and become lonely," she says. According to the Robert Koch Institute, approximately 13,000 people in Germany are diagnosed with tumours in the mouth and throat every year. "And so I ask myself: Where are they actually? You can't see them." Her husband nods. Although he can no longer eat and is fed by a stomach tube, he wants to participate in everyday life. "I have everything else that I need. I have my wife by my side. I'm doing comparatively well," says Schilling.
Swelling not noticed at first
After attending secondary school at the Rheinallee, he trained as a funeral director. For 16 years he worked in Bad Godesberg, then moved to the Saarland and Cologne. "But I lived in Berkum again," he reports. He didn't notice the swelling in the mouth area under his full beard at the beginning, he reports and shows photos. But in 2014 a fistula, which turned out to be a tumour, inflamed under the denture. The fistula then spreaded in the mouth, Schilling remembers. "I don't know how I put up with it back then. But something like that happens," he says. He knew that he had smoked a lot and was probably responsible for the illness himself.
But in the end the severe cluster headaches he suffered from as a younger man were much worse. "I'm not the complaining type," says Schilling. And looks over at his wife, who nods and then nestles up to him. Of course, he also thinks about what his illness means for his wife, Schilling re-starts. "Yes, sometimes you want to cry without inhibitions," she says after a moment's hesitation. But then Gisa Briesemeister-Schilling sits up straight again and smiles friendly over the table. "We are well. I just can't eat," says her husband. They go camping or are on the road by motorbike. They meet with friends in the Rheinaue-Restaurant. "And at home there's a big garden waiting for you."
Six fellow sufferers known
The couple know six fellow sufferers in Bonn and the region. They joined the self-help group, which meets once a month at the ear, nose and throat clinic of the university hospital. Peter Schilling leads the group with Gunthard Kissinger, who is also affected. They want to make their work better known. "Ultimately, we are looking for supporters throughout Germany to set up further self-help groups," said Schilling. Contact with like-minded people is so important. There were other victims who had taken their own lives. We are looking for supporters who can help to bring this clinical picture into the public eye. "Life must not be over as a result. There are so many things that are fun. Should that also be over? Never ever.“
The last question is where he gets the strength to look so positively into the day. Peter Schilling raises his head in amazement. He buried so many people, he then says. And not everyone dies peacefully in bed. "I've seen so many things that others can't cope with," he adds. And if someone wants to experience real suffering, he should simply take a look at paediatric oncology. "Dying children, that's what I call actual suffering."
(Original text: Ebba Hagenberg-Miliu; Translation: Mareike Graepel)