Campaigns & activities Mouth Cancer Action Month Stephanie Leach Throughout February and March 2007, I had a sore throat on the right-hand side. I tried many things, but nothing seemed to help alleviate it. After a few weeks I finally went to see my Doctor and he immediately referred me to see a specialist. Two things at this point; firstly, cancer hadn’t even crossed my mind, and secondly, I didn’t realise that a sore throat on only one side could be a sign of cancer. The specialist asked me if I smoked, drank a lot or chewed tobacco! I did none of these. He then referred me to a further a specialist in Taunton hospital where I underwent a biopsy under anaesthetic. After the biopsy I met the consultant who told me that, although they had to send it off for tests, he was 95% sure that I had mouth cancer. I couldn’t even say the word let alone hear anything else he said. I couldn’t have cancer, I had just started looking after my very dear first grandson while my daughter and her husband were at work and I was also caring for my elderly mum. My daughter, my partner and my grandson were now my team, we went to the next appointment where I was given the choice of an operation then maybe radiotherapy and chemotherapy or just have radiotherapy, I chose the operation. Before the operation I had an MRI scan, a CT scan and the glands on the left side of my neck were checked for any sign of cancer. My surgery was scheduled at Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital where I met a team of amazing people. After my operation I would need a bed in ITU, so I went into hospital the day before my operation was scheduled and prayed there would be a bed free in the morning, I was lucky, so at 9 o’clock on the 17th of May I walked down to theatre. My operation took nine hours, such an amazing operation, I lost a third of my tongue and half of my soft palette, this was then reconstructed from a vein and skin from my arm and that was replaced with skin from my stomach. As the cancer was quite far back they had to break my jaw to get at it, all the glands in the right side of my neck were removed and I was given a tracheotomy. I remember waking up in ITU and was given a message of lots of love from my Grandson. It was quite funny really as I remember they had to keep putting their finger in my mouth to check that the flap that they had rebuilt was ok. The next day I was moved into a side ward and my team were allowed to see me. I was sitting up with pillows all around me, my arm had to stay upright, I had a catheter, a tracheotomy, a tube up my nose, a line and a drain in my arm and neck. On the Monday it was my 59th Birthday how very lucky was I? The care in Exeter was amazing, the best bit was when I could have my tracheotomy taken out. My family team came to see me as often as they could. Although I would go for a walk when I could, recovery was quite slow, my flap on my tongue had lifted so had to be stitched back again with a local anaesthetic and I had to promise not to try and talk at all! One day I tried to swallow water, but it just came out of my neck, so we had to leave a while longer. I was still being fed through the tube up my nose. Later we tried my swallow again and it was ok, so they removed my feeding tube and I was allowed to try to eat and drink. A little food or drink would take hours and wasn’t very tasty either, but it was heaven. Because of an artery in my neck they couldn’t get as wide a margin around the cancer as they would have liked so it was decided that I would have radiotherapy, but that wouldn’t be for a few weeks till my mouth had healed. Eating was very slow, and tiring and I persevered with all the high fat protein drinks they gave me as by this time I had lost two stone. A few weeks later, when my mouth had healed, I had 20 sessions (four weeks) of radiotherapy and I have attended regular check-ups since my op. Eating and drinking has become a little easier over time and the pain has lessened as well. I’ve also had to learn to talk so that people can understand me. I won’t lie, it was a very scary experience, BUT, and a very big BUT, it was all worth going through as I am now 11 years on from my op and I have been able to see my grandson and granddaughter grow up. I am so grateful for the whole team that looked after me. My message to anyone is to get your mouth checked all the time and if you have any sort of sore or lump get checked straight away.