- Kelly McCandless
...the importance of seeing your GP if you have symptoms for three weeks or more.
I want to tell you about my mum’s broken toe and how it would ultimately save her life! In October 2003, mum went to the doctor with a broken toe; however, during the consultation the GP seemed more concerned about the hoarseness in her throat. She had been hoarse for a couple of weeks, but thought it was a cold, although she did not have any other symptoms. Our GP referred her to an ear, nose and throat (ENT) consultant, to which mum reluctantly agreed as she didn't think it was worth bothering anyone about. During the next couple of weeks she developed a slight sore throat, and every now and again when she drank any sort of fluid it would come down her nose. She went to her ENT appointment in November and her consultant scheduled a biopsy for January 2004.
Christmas 2003 was non-existent for us, as mum had developed a cough and started to become very tired. Her cough, however, was not your common cold cough; it sounded a lot worse. She described it as if something was stuck in her throat. Then, ten days after her biopsy we were told that mum, at 60 years of age, had oropharyngeal cancer.
The following months and year ahead were the most surreal and frightening time in our lives; hospitals became our second home. Many tests, scans, scopes and more biopsies followed in order to find out if the cancer had spread and how to develop a treatment plan. Mum was admitted to hospital in April 2004 for a bilateral neck dissection to remove the nodes from her neck, during which they extracted her teeth. No one had explained to us what the surgery consisted of, so it was quite traumatic when we saw mum after her surgery. She had staples running from behind her ear and down her neck to just above her collarbone. One side of her face was very swollen and bruised and she looked to be in so much pain. It was just the start of her treatment, and I had no idea how she would cope with what was going to follow.
Her treatment included chemo/radiotherapy, which is chemotherapy and radiotherapy treatment running alongside each other. Mum attended The Beatson West of Scotland Cancer Centre in May 2004 to have a mold for her mask fitted, and she started a gruelling regime of daily radiotherapy and weekly chemotherapy which would last until 19 July. After her last treatment we were all so relieved and thought that this was now the road to recovery, but unfortunately this was not the case.
Radiotherapy generally has terrible side effects, but for my mum it had devastating side effects. Mum could no longer take any food or drink orally as she could not swallow. Her salivary glands had been damaged and she could no longer produce saliva. This resulted in a constant dry mouth and many mouth infections in the beginning; she also lost her sense of taste and smell. A nasogastric tube was inserted to give her the calories she needed, as her weight had dropped so much during treatment. My sister and I were shown how to work the machine and mum was discharged from hospital. This was the start of a very scary, lonely time for us as a family, as I now found myself caring full time for mum. At the start of mum’s treatment, she was assigned a head and neck nurse specialist who became a huge source of strength for us, not just for mum as her patient, but for us as a family. She will always have a special place in our hearts.
Fast forwarding to 2009 and mum received the all clear from her consultant, and in 2010 she held her first great grandchild. In 2012, mum appeared at the city halls in a play written by the writing/drama group she joined, and in 2013 she celebrated her 70th birthday. None of this would have been possible had it not been for her consultant and an incredible team of head and neck nurse specialists, dieticians, speech therapists and, most importantly, our family GP who picked up on mums early symptoms. Sadly, in 2014, mum passed away at the age of 72 due to an unrelated illness. My world fell apart as she was one of the most courageous, inspirational woman in my life. I was at a complete loss as she had been such a big part of my life, more so for the last 11 years. The same head and neck nurse specialist who had helped us through mum’s treatment suggested that I go to a support group for head and neck cancer patients, families and carers that had recently been set up by a group of former patients. She thought that, through time, I may have be able to help other patients and carers. It was here that I met another inspirational lady, Cath Clark. She took me under her wing and supported me through my darkest days. We were all patients, carers and family members of head and neck cancer who met on our individual quests to seek information, help and support of this relatively uncommon type of cancer.
A few of the group were keen on raising awareness and spoke about doing a walk. My friend Cath and I got together with some of the group to arrange this. We wanted to walk with our families and friends, and therefore thought 20 people would be a good estimate. The support we received while organising our walk was overwhelming. The result was a 6k walk from the Falkirk wheel in Scotland (it’s a rotating boat lift that connects the Forth and Clyde with the Union Canal) to the 30-metre high horse-head sculptures that are the Kelpies. We chose to walk to the Kelpies as we thought they were a nice reference to our Scottish heritage, as well as their connection to head and neck cancer. Over 100 people joined us on the day, including families we had never met before, head and neck nurse specialists, a professor of ENT and a head and neck surgeon. In total, 120 people were walking together, with one thing in common and with one goal: to raise much needed awareness of head and neck cancer in Scotland.
My mum was a head and neck cancer survivor, and I hope that sharing her story will help raise awareness of the importance of seeing your GP if you have symptoms for three weeks or more.