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Oral cancer - why did it happen to me?

From Mr Mal Thomas

Cancer - who would have thought it could happen to me, a clean living, non drinker/smoker? But it did!

In March 2007 I was diagnosed with oral and neck cancer. My GP was totally gobsmacked. I had been back and forth to him and other GP's within the practice since before Christmas about an ulcer that had formed on the underside of my tongue. As the weeks went by it became a substantial lesion with pain tracking down to my neck glands.

The GP's found nothing to concern them and said that Oraldene and saliva would soon clear the problem up. As for the neck glands - well, they were just slightly raised. WRONG!

In March after a biopsy I was diagnosed with oral/tongue and neck cancer and immediately admitted to a hospital in Sheffield. This was Friday. Masses of tests followed over the weekend and the operation was scheduled for Tuesday. A 14 hour operation included the removal of 2/3 of my tongue, replacing it with a grafted flap taken from my left arm, which in turn was replaced with a graft from my stomach. In addition, I had the total removal of all salivary glands etc in my neck (on the right side only).

The operation went well and it was confirmed via histology/pathology that all the cancer had been successfully removed and the clearances were well within the Sheffield protocols. However, several days later a nasty infection set in, attacking the muscles around the operation site and in particular the grafted flap. A further operation ensued to remove the infection and any further infected tissue. This was successful, though a further operation was required to tidy things up which resulted in considerable swelling to the right side of the neck.

During my stay in hospital the care was second to none and considerably helped myself and my family get through this difficult time.

At the time, in the histology/pathology report it was stated that due to the success of the operation, any further therapy would not be required. However, there was a discussion within the consultant team and it was concluded that radiotherapy should be offered. It was agreed that I would go ahead, using the radiotherapy as an insurance against the cancer ever returning. As we all know, there are no guarantees.

I am now seven weeks post radiotherapy and progressing at a steady rate. My speech is far better than I or anyone else expected and the healing has been amazing.

What I found disturbing in all this was not the care or the expertise of the hospital staff but the distinct lack of material on the subject of oral/neck cancer. During my time in Sheffield, and I hasten to add that we were very fortunate to have family we could stay with which made the whole ordeal somewhat easier to bear, we also made use of two hospital cancer support centres. One had a mass of information in one room but all you could see was breast, lung, prostate (and did I say breast) and there in a corner, after much searching we found a booklet on head and neck cancer. No information was found in my GP's either, which seriously raised concerns.

Having been through this experience the one underlying problem I have had, and still have, is the lack of a reason why. Due to my clean living as stated above, all the consultant could say was, and I quote, 'Sh*t happens'. If I have other ailments I will normally be told to stop doing something or reduce intake of certain food stuff etc. In this case there is nothing to change, nothing I should stop doing to reduce the risk of the cancer returning and I find that very disconcerting.

Anyway, my main aim now is to get on with life and live the dream both my wife and I have had for many years. But above all I really want to assist in any way possible to raise awareness of this debilitating and disfiguring form of cancer. I hope that someone in the hierarchy of Cancer Research will read this contribution and make contact to comment on how I can help.

Here's to life after cancer

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Updated: 28 September 2009