I was so lucky to have a wonderful family and wonderful friends and never was I going to allow it to beat me – not an option!
I have always been a very fit and healthy person, and about five years ago I found a lump in my neck while watching television. At the time, I wasn’t overly concerned; however, it was still present after two weeks and I went to the doctor to get it checked. My doctor assured me that because I had never smoked and was fit and healthy, it was likely to be an infected lymph node, but he made an appointment at an ear, nose and throat (ENT) outpatients to make sure. At that appointment I was also told the same thing, so was relatively stress free while I awaited my biopsy results. I was so unconcerned, in fact, that I spent a couple of weeks in Florida hanging upside down on rides, and even thought that may eradicate any lump, or Norrie the node, as I called it.
When I returned from my holiday to receive my results, I was shocked to be told that I had cancer. In no uncertain terms I was told it was serious and they needed to find the source as quickly as possible via exploratory surgery. It is not often that I am speechless and I remember saying "you have to be joking". I was on my own when I received my diagnosis and would not have wanted anyone there. I preferred to digest the diagnosis myself before telling my husband and two daughters. After a few days I told my husband and then family and friends by saying that I had good news and bad news. The good news being that it was caught early and I was going to be fine, which is something I firmly believed and never doubted.
Advice on how to handle my diagnosis would have been very helpful. I remember looking at advice and information on the internet; however, I felt the results were dramatic and caused me too much concern, so I stopped. To summarise, I was taken to St John’s, where I underwent exploratory surgery and I woke up with a sore throat. I remember telling the surgeon that I was delighted that they had removed my tonsils as this meant I had throat cancer, and he gave me a strange look! I was delighted, as on the internet some of the other options of cancer relating to a lump in the neck involved losing an eye or cheekbone/piece of tongue. The tumour they found was so small it was found by touch only, but unfortunately it had already travelled to another node. Once the source was found, everything began to move very quickly. My husband and I met with a team of people at the hospital, including my head cancer doctor, and my treatment regime was explained to me. I was told I would need a tube put into my stomach, because the regime would cause me to be able to eat properly. I tried to argue, as food and I got on very well, so I was naively convinced that the doctor was wrong and ‘of course I could eat’. I would need radiotherapy every day for 7 weeks and I had two rounds of chemotherapy simultaneously.
The operation for the insertion of the tube in my stomach was not a pleasant experience. Additionally, I’m allergic to morphine and the sickness quickly set in. Four days after my stomach tube was inserted, I had my first round chemotherapy. I then had a mask made to fit tightly over my head and shoulders to increase the accuracy of the radiotherapy, which I had every day for seven weeks. As a result, I needed to stay in the hospital to be on a re-dehydration drip. At first, my hair didn’t fall out, and that was good for my self-confidence, but more importantly for my kids. That being said, after all my treatment, my hair did fall out and it became very thin. My friends were all going to wear wigs too if I needed to wear one – wearing a wig didn’t bother me – but I managed to not need one in the end.
The chemotherapy was very difficult for me; it made me continuously sick for three months. During the second round of chemotherapy, I was hospitalised for 19 days. I didn’t allow my kids to visit during this time and my husband was a star considering he hates hospitals. I also only allowed a few very close friends to visit as I didn’t like to see them getting so concerned for me as I had so many tubes and looked pretty scary. I continued to struggle with the side effects of the chemotherapy and radiotherapy, including the sickness, and my stomach did not take to the tube. In fact it “popped” 3 times and needed to be re-inserted. I would highly recommend using the night feed option as the machine you plug yourself into may make a noise all night - but it fills you with the nutrients that you need.
After all my treatment was complete one of my tumours was gone, but my original tumour (Norrie), although now minute, was still there. Normally the next step would be surgery to remove the lymph nodes, but this brings a risk of the voice box being affected. Thankfully there was another option, and I was given an injection of radioactive material and a full CAT scan to see if the tumour was active; luckily the only thing showing life was my brain!
I am now back to work, practically full time, and I have check-ups once every three months. Apart from reduced salivary glands, which means sipping water though the night, feeling the cold more than I used to and taste buds that are now beginning to return to normal (after only four years), I am totally fine! I cannot eat chocolate, which my friends find amusing as I loved chocolate, but one day! I was so lucky to have a wonderful family and wonderful friends and never was I going to allow it to beat me – not an option!