Cath Clark

Having come through my journey, challenging and heartbreaking as it has been, I am here. I saw my son get married and I got to meet my beautiful grandson.

I’m an Aussie bird who has lived in Scotland for the past 45 years. I have always been a slightly wacky, glam, fun loving person who believes in living life to the fullest and meeting challenges head on (no pun intended!). Having spent 35 years working with British Airways and working alongside the most amazing crew, I had always taken great pride in my appearance and enjoyed my job tremendously. I loved the freedom and confidence being a Cabin Services Director afforded me. However, my life would change dramatically when in December 2009, I was diagnosed with cancer in my sinus and tear duct. After my initial diagnosis, I went into Rosshall Hospital in Glasgow thinking this would only be for a little operation to unblock my tear duct. However, after the operation I was told by my ophthalmologist, that the tumour was cancerous and that it was ‘grade four’ cancer. This meant that I needed to have my left eye and cheek removed to stop the cancer spreading.

I felt the recommended surgery was extreme, and didn’t feel as if I would have been able to cope with the trauma of it. I thought I would end up suffering a mental breakdown ultimately dramatically affecting the lives of my husband and son. So I made the decision not have the surgery, which did not go down well with my doctor. After my refusal, I was referred to an esteemed oncologist from the Beatson Cancer Centre in Glasgow, who explained to me that I could not receive further treatment, such as radiotherapy, until my tumour had been removed. She was aware of my earlier decision and told me about Professor Gerald McGarry, an ENT specialist surgeon at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary, who had pioneered operations on other patients like me. I was up for that, so an appointment was made to see Professor McGarry, affectionately known as Indiana Jones! Professor McGarry explained the type of procedure he would perform, which would mean I would not have to have my eye and cheek removed. I was grateful to have the chance to meet with this incredible man, and we decided to go ahead with the procedure.

The real journey began after my operation, however. I understood the severity and associated side effects of my operation but, in truth, I was not prepared for the aftermath of the operation, and the difficult road ahead. Physically and emotionally, this was the most painful time of my life. The pressure in my head was unbearable – at times I felt my head could have burst. I was unable to smell or taste anything for eight months, and I began losing my hair as a result of my subsequent radiotherapy. I had my hair cut short and used a lot of hairspray to try and hide the bald patches! Despite suffering more than I had ever expected, I wanted to stay strong and positive for my family. I knew I had to beat the cancer.

When I was well enough, I was fitted for my radiotherapy mask, I felt totally unprepared and terrified. My tumour was very close to my pituitary gland so the precision and accuracy of the beam was crucial. This meant that for five days a week, for seven weeks, I went to the Beatson Cancer Centre, put the mask over my face, have it stapled to the table and be left in the room alone. I felt disoriented and suffocated by the mask – even experiencing panic attacks throughout the treatment. In hindsight, it was a necessary evil but not being able to move or see, I was frightened and alone; it was a truly horrific experience, but it saved my life.

After my radiotherapy came another blow. In my post-op check, a full body scan revealed a lump on my fallopian tubes and I had to undergo another operation to remove them. After all of this, when I felt totally exhausted and beaten down, I started skin grafting treatments on my face, and at this point I had completely lost my confidence. I had horrendously low self-esteem and questioned every decision I made, no matter how trivial. My physical journey was well underway, but my emotional scars were as raw as my surgical wounds. I couldn’t look at myself in the mirror and I felt very alone, like no one would understand. I felt broken and felt that I had let my husband down; my darkest thoughts still haunt me to this day. Even now, writing my story to help other patients, reliving this time in my life unbearably hard.

Unlike with most cancers, the effects and scars of head and neck cancer cannot be covered by your clothes or by make-up. They are visible for everyone to see, to stare at and to judge. My cancer was emotionally debilitating and physically scarred me, but the real heroes are those who have been far more affected than I. People who have lost an eye, have had laryngectomies, lost the ability to speak or have lost extensive parts of their face and worse still, those who have lost their lives.

Throughout all of this time I was incredibly well looked after by the various clinical teams I encountered. I realised that what I was going through was not unique and there were other patients suffering who needed someone to talk to. I wanted something positive to come from my nightmare, so I spoke with my doctors and specialist nurses, and persuaded them to help start a head and neck cancer support group in Scotland. I was introduced to another patient, and together we founded the Heads Up Support Group for patients and carers. Now in its third year, we have pulled back from the support side of the group, to allow us to focus on raising awareness. I do hope the message from my experience of having cancer is: if you see or feel something on your head, neck, mouth, face or body that is not the norm, please make time to see your doctor and get it checked. Having come through my journey, challenging and heartbreaking as it has been, I am here. I saw my son get married and I got to meet my beautiful grandson.