My Health Experience: I was in denial about my diagnosis
With no family history of cancer, complex diagnosis met a degree of denial
Anne Geary, in Tramore, Co Waterford, with Ivy her dog. Photograph: Patrick Browne
Anne Geary in Tramore, Co Waterford. Photograph: Patrick Browne
I work as a school secretary and was feeling under the weather for a while with low energy and poor concentration. I also noticed a pimple-sized lump on the right side of my neck and assumed it was some form of flu so I went to see my GP, who referred me to the ear, nose and throat department (ENT) of Waterford Regional Hospital the same day.
I was examined and then asked to return so that a consultant could perform a needle biopsy and do a CT scan, after which I was told he would remove the lump. But when I was waiting for surgery, there was a sudden change of plan and I had to go for a Pet scan.
My husband, Conor, was with me as we waited for the results. Because I had no family history – I have six brothers and one sister – I was utterly dumbfounded to be informed that I had an aggressive tumour in my throat. I was just 43 years old – I am now 47 – and had something called squamous cell carcinoma of my right tonsil.
After the initial shock, I handled the diagnosis with some degree of denial as I think it takes a period of time to digest and accept news like this.
I was to begin treatment at St Luke’s Hospital in Dublin in January 2010, but had to have a peg-feeding tube put into my stomach beforehand as I was told there would come a time when I wouldn’t be able to swallow. I also had two wisdom teeth removed and from there had to have a mask moulded for my face and neck for radiation.
Once those procedures were done, I completed 35 sessions of radiotherapy and four weeks of chemotherapy. This was really tough and I missed my son, Creven, so much; he was only eight at the time so it was hard to be away from him. The medical staff were so helpful and kind.
But despite three weeks of treatment I began going downhill. I felt very sick and weak and had to stay in hospital until the end of March.
However, although I still didn’t feel very well, I went for another Pet scan in July 2010 and it came back clear, which was fantastic news. The whole family celebrated while I sat and smiled as I couldn’t drink or eat anything other than soft food.
But a few weeks later I returned to my consultant because I felt the tumour was still there; I had a sensation as if I had bitten my tongue. So I was sent for another scan and returned to ENT on August 20th, my birthday, to be told I had an early recurrence.
It was devastating news.
I was referred to Cork South Infirmary where surgeons performed a radical resection, including removing the tumour, splitting my jaw, removing lymph nodes from my neck, and doing a tracheostomy.
It was a very hard time and the recovery after surgery was hellish. Then, in October 2011, further surgery was required which included debridement of bone and removal of plates.
But I got through it all and thankfully have been cancer-free since.
I don’t think I will ever feel normal again. The treatment was harsh and the surgery was brutal. I have developed osteoradionecrosis of my right mandible [death of bone due to radiation], my speech is unclear, and I have nerve damage in the right side of my mouth, lip and chin area.
I can’t swallow food and can only sip liquids. I constantly have a tissue in my hand for fear of dribbling as my saliva glands were damaged. And I usually have a very dry mouth, so I have to sip water all day.
But my speech bothers me more than the eating as I was always a bit of a chatterbox, so in a way the cancer has taken away a huge part of my personality. I used to love social occasions but now I dread them as my energy is up and down, and most events revolve around food and drink: as I can’t do either, it’s very frustrating.
Family and friends
Throughout it all, the support I received from friends and family was next to none. Most of my siblings live abroad and they all came home to be with me when it mattered. They are the best, as are my husband and son.
My advice to anyone else going through something like this would be to accept all the help offered. Avoid visitors in the beginning and rest up for a few weeks; people mean well but they don’t understand what your body and mind has endured.
I had no history of cancer in my family and never imagined that I would develop something like this. So it shows that it can happen to anyone and people should always be aware and visit their doctor if they have any concerns.
I’m so glad I went when I did, because that’s why I am still here today.
Cancer Week runs from September 15th to 21st. Wednesday, September 17th, is mouth, head and neck cancer awareness day, and free mouth cancer examinations will be available at dental and GP surgeries around the country. For more information, see cancer.ie